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:
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]