Senior Layout Editor
Illustration by Amanda Excell, Staff Illustrator
The Internet is an odd place. Those of us privileged enough to access it are mere clicks away from the vast majority of human knowledge, yet we mostly spend our time looking at our ex’s Facebook pictures or exploring abysmal life-suckers like Reddit or Buzzfeed. And while we’re looking at what’s basically nothing, others are looking at us.
Your average Internet user isn’t particularly invested in his or her web browser, but I am a Chrome man, and I’ll admit it: I switched from Mozilla Firefox to Google Chrome mostly because of Chrome’s “Reddit Enhancement Suite,” an extension that makes browsing my favorite site that much more intuitive and rewarding. But with the team at Mozilla having released the Lightbeam add-on, I’m tempted to forge a return.
Mozilla’s Lightbeam is a Firefox-specific add-on that that reveals to users which first and third parties are tracking them in real time. The data that Lightbeam aggregates is presented in easy-to-read visualizations, including a web-like network visualization full of visited and third-party sites, a hemispherical “clock” that shows the relationship between first and third parties on a time scale, and a list view that also has a setting to block certain sites.
The idea behind Lightbeam is to open users’ eyes to the amount of information that is collected from them on a given day on the web. This gave me an idea: switch to Firefox for a day, install and run Lightbeam, and have a normal day surfing the Internet. The results were startling.
In the first 12 hours, I visited 31 sites, ranging from Facebook to Reddit to Buzzfeed. These are sites that I actively typed in and surfed. But the number of sites I was connected to was a staggering 117. These are services like Google Analytics and Webtype that companies pay to increase web traffic and target advertisements.
When you visit a website, it will often store “cookies” in your browser. Cookies are bits of information about you that allow websites to fill in the blanks. When you put an item in your cart on Amazon and hit the “back” button, the item stays in your cart because of a cookie. Think of the tracking business as cookies on steroids.
When I connect The Atlantic’s website, for example, Lightbeam shows me that I am also connected to 22 third party sites, the names of many being as foreign to me as Sanskrit. That’s because these sites work in the background. Also, many are somewhat obscure to average users, but very well known by websites that want to track their visitors’ information. Scripts and programs working in the background are a significant aspect of how the Internet functions, but they are inherently hidden from users.
That’s not to say that Big Brother is watching us on the Internet. Nothing illegal is occurring when you visit a website and a third party accesses some of your information, but Lightbeam makes the inner machinations of the Internet more transparent. There are many aspects of the Internet that many simply don’t know about, and tracking is an important one.
Another aspect that Mozilla aims to promote is the open-sourced mentality of the Internet and the freedom that many feel should come with it. Lightbeam and other extensions like Google Chrome’s Ghostery allow users to block certain sites from accessing their information. Many of the sites that Lightbeam identifies and can block run in the background of your browser. This presented a question I’m still trying to answer: Am I okay with this?
Lightbeam’s rerelease comes at an interesting time for the Internet. With the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act looming again in Congress, Internet privacy is once again on our minds. For me, nothing really changed in the 24 hours I spent using Lightbeam. I never felt compelled to block any sites for feeling like they were encroaching on my privacy or even hindering my web browsing experience. However, the idea behind the add-on is interesting and should catch on not only with those that are already a bit more informed than your average web surfer, but also with the rest of us who have always wondered just who is watching.