Collusion Browser App Charts Who's Tracking You Online

Install Atul Varma's Firefox extension, and you'll be able to see the little digital tracking devices that nearly every site you visit sticks onto you.

When you browse the web, you are being tracked. This is a fact of life. Some companies, like Voyurl, want to visualize what they track and give it back to you as useful information. Others... don't. If you want to shine some sunlight on those guys, you need a little browser tool called Collusion. It's a Firefox extension that sees the little digital Lo-Jacks that get stuck to you as you browse (they're technically called cookies) and visualizes them in a clean, clickable graph for your viewing displeasure.

"If you're not paying, then you're the product being sold."

If you don't use Firefox (I don't), creator Atul Varma offers a handy little interactive demo on Collusion's website that simulates a browsing session to some of the web's more prominent destinations, like The New York Times, Huffington Post, and the Internet Movie Database. The little visualizations look benign -- just a gray dot (representing the site you're visiting) with a few little red ones branching out (the aforementioned cookies). But each one of those red dots represents an advertising entity that engages in "behavioral tracking" according to privacychoice.org (Collusion displays specific details if you roll over the dots with your mouse). As you continue to surf, those dots start to pile up and interconnect as these "entities" track you across multiple sites. Here's the "collusion graph" generated by 7 days' worth of browsing by one of Atul's friends:

Collusion graph

As Andrew Lewis says (and he's quoted on Collusion's site): "If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." Like I said above, that's a fact of life on the web. What's unnerving is how little we're made aware of it by the "trusted" sites that we visit on a daily basis. Look, I'm not necessarily opposed to having my "data exhaust" or whatever mined and sold as part of the price of a free browsing experience. But why the cloak-and-dagger act, advertisers (and publishers)? You can't not look shady when you show up in something like Collusion. Come to think of it, I wonder what Co.Design's cookies are doing right now that I don't know about? Maybe a Firefox-equipped reader can let us know in the comments.

[Top image by Thomas Leuthard]

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3 Comments

  • Guest

    The ironic thing is that the moment i clicked the link to this story, collusion opened up 10 new entries from this page alone.

  • paul navarrette

    I am
    100% against having any of my information mined, data based or sold in any
    manner. We live in an absolute 1984 nightmare where humanity is tracked, face
    scanned, watched, and studied every minute of everyday. In 1996 we had Bill
    Clinton pass the FCC telecommunications act which was a pay off to the telecom
    corporation to have there cell phones as trackers and allow the government
    snoop on the American citizens, this was pushed further and made “legal” by the
    patriot act.

     

    Google
    : The company has established a close
    working relationship with the National Security Agency, the government spy
    force responsible for warrantless monitoring of Americans’ phone calls and
    e-mails in the wake of 9/11. Google is supplying the
    software, hardware and tech support to US intelligence agencies
    in the process of creating a vast closed source database for global spy
    networks to share information. Then you have the private industries following the cell phone companies plan to use
    microphones, computer companies Microsoft and Apple plan to use microsphones in
    the computers of an estimated 150 million-plus Internet active Americans to spy
    on their lifestyle choices and build psychological profiles which will be used
    for surveillance and minority report style invasive advertising and data
    mining. "The idea is to use the existing PC microphone to listen to
    whatever is heard in the background, be it music, your phone going off or the
    TV turned down. The PC then identifies it, using fingerprinting, and then shows
    you relevant content, whether that's adverts or search results, or a chat room
    on the subject," reports the
    Register. The US already uses the Echelon program
    which has collected information in violation of the 4th Amendment from American
    citizen's phone calls since the early 90's at least. In addition, a 2001 European
    Parliament report stated that "within Europe all e-mail,
    telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted" by the NSA.

     

    Cellphones: “Stunned iPhone and iPad owners have only just
    found out that all of their movements are tracked and stored in a hidden iOS
    file which gets synced to their PC every time they connect the phone,” reports Gadgets and Gizmos. “The name of the
    file is Consolidated.db and it uses the Apple devices’ GPS function to record
    your location and the time you were there.” The
    Wall Street Journal expanded on
    the revelations surrounding Apple on Friday by reporting that Google’s Android
    smart phones also, “Regularly transmit their locations back to…Google,
    according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street
    Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal
    data.” Google’s HTC Android phones collect location data every few minutes and
    transmit that information directly to Google several times an hour, including
    the unique phone identifier, meaning that Google can keep tabs on the movement
    of a known individual almost constantly. Since people now ubiquitously carry
    their cellphones everywhere they go, this is akin to having a tracking
    microchip implanted in your forehead. This tracking allows Google to then
    handover all your information and location to the NSA! (The National Security Agency (NSA) is considering the surveillance of
    people in the United States by intercepting mobile-device location data, NSA
    general counsel Matthew Olsen said this week.) There is so much and
    anti-humanity slave training that goes on in the world many no longer see that
    inherit right smatter and just go along with the flow (apathy). Technology is
    not bad, but what it’s used for is a different story.

     

    It may be a great graphic but it
    hides the real truth behind the absolute tracking of the population. 

  • Chris

    "Look, I'm not necessarily opposed to having my 'data exhaust' or whatever mined and sold as part of the price of a free browsing experience." 

    Hi John, 

    Concerning this statement, I would say I do oppose having my every move data mined. It seems we've slid into this situation (the illusion of getting something for nothing) over time. Much of the web was/is thought of as open and free, and slowly what is free is actually being monetized in some way. It's a trade off, I suppose, except we don't have a choice in the matter. Do I have the option to purchase a browser that safeguards online privacy? The other option to this "free browsing experience" is to just unplug from the system. But that is something that is unthinkable for most.