We already know that nothing we do online is totally private. Still, just how many entities are following us through the web, right now? Is it 10? 100? 1,000?
Mozilla, makers of Firefox, have recently released an extension to answer that question. It’s called Collusion, developed in-house by engineer Atul Varma.
The installation takes all of a click. And in a similar vein to the Password Reuse Visualizer, it will dynamically build an entire conspiratorial web, a la newspaper clippings and strands of yarn, of the groups tracking your path across the Internet as you browse. The effect occurs in real time, continuing until you find yourself a bit too disgusted. Closing the window in nothing short of denial.
“When people try Collusion for the first time, they are often shocked or surprised at the large web of trackers that appear. It creates an immediate and visceral reaction after visiting only a few sites,” Mozilla COO Ryan Merkley tells Co.Design. “People realize that they have very little control over where their data is going–it’s disheartening.”
It is disheartening. What starts as a blank canvas in a free tab will sprout into a tangled mess after just a few minutes of casual browsing. You expect it from Facebook, but then you realize the multitude of faces you don’t recognize–mostly ad networks–following you from place to place. Even sites you’ve grown to trust, Fast Company included, are tracking you (though Fast Company itself only appears to track its users across its own sites).
The system isn’t perfect. For one, maybe we shouldn’t see everything. At first the effect might call you to action, but eventually, it evokes a feeling of hopelessness. There’s just not much to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Collusion clearly labels the trackers known to follow you across multiple sites–these worrisome groups appear as red dots–but the remaining grey dots could be innocuous, or they might just be unknown spies.
Collusion is a lot like if you could see every virus floating about in the real world without a reliable way to know which will actually make you ill. You’d either hole up at home, or you’d stop caring about viruses altogether. It’s remarkable how quickly terror can lead to apathy. “But pulling back the curtain is only the first step,” assures Merkley. “People want to understand what they see, and have ways to control it. Future versions of Collusion will make that possible.”