Firefox's Collusion Confirms Your Paranoia
Mozilla recently came out with an AddOn for their Firefox browser named "Collusion," that allows you to see exactly how many external sites are tracking your activity and even displays the names of the websites doing so. As I was snooping around for technical headlines today, I took the time to plug many of websites into the Collusion application to see what they looked like. The resulting Collusion maps are shown below. The target websites are displayed in green and the "tracker" website names are in yellow. Lines interconnect websites according to their relationships with other websites. Note that for many sites, trackers go on to send your information to other tracker websites. Those are the ones that you are usually told to beware of because they have the highest likelihood of collecting irrelevant information and selling it to 3rd party companies.
Many of the tracker names that appear along with the homepage are familiar to anyone who has been using the Internet for a few years. DoubleClick.net is just about everywhere - including on RF Cafe - and serves the standard size (782x90-px, 300x250-px, 468x60-px, etc.) banner advertisements in page borders and buried within page content. DoubleClick.net was bought by Google.com a few years back, so they are essentially one and the same; in fact, typing doubleclick.net into your browser address field gets you redirected to google.com.
ScorecardResearch.com seems to be popular as well. They claim to be a "market research community, a leading global market research effort that studies and reports on Internet trends and behavior."
TribalFusion.com ("a global online advertising provider that drives sales for the world’s top brands by helping them learn about, reach and engage their online audiences more effectively") is one of the websites that apparently passes the data they collect on you on to other entities, including ScorecardResearch.com and IMRWorldwide.com (see Cellular News' Collusion map). IMRWorldwide.com has no public website interface. A search turned up the description by Abine.com: "imrworldwide.com is a domain used by Netratings Site Census which is an analytics company that is part of a network of sites, cookies, and other technologies used to track you, what you do and what you click on, as you go from site to site, surfing the Web."
If you take the trouble to check out the names of other tracker websites, you will find all kinds of questionable stuff. It might be enough to cause you to increase the security level of your browser(s). All of the major browsers offer "do not track" type features to help prevent unwelcome activity, but enabling it and re-checking the Collusion maps showed that they do not catch everything. The problem with elevating your security level is that it ends up blocking some of the features that you actually want, like videos and Flash displays, and ends up leaving blank areas in your page and/or preventing the page from loading completely. After playing with Collusion for a while, it will become obvious why after visiting a website featuring bicycles or lawn mowers, banner ads on subsequent websites will begin showing you advertisements from companies offering bicycles or lawn mowers - often even the same company that you had previously visited!
If you decide to try out the Collusion AddOn, be sure that between each website map generated you hit the "Reset Graph" link on the Collusion screen and also clear Recent History. If you fail to do so, elements from previous websites will spill over into the current map.
Without pointing fingers and naming names, a quick scan of the Collusion maps below make obvious the broad range of tracking activity of various websites. Interestingly, the government and government-subsidized websites I tested have either no trackers or something from Twitter. Surprisingly, Facebook did not show up on any of them. RFCafe.com shows two trackers - DoubleClick.com (they do the GlobalSpec ads you see) and Google.com, who serves the rest.
Conspicuously missing from all Collusion maps is any indication that the government, any government, is tracking your movements. You know it's happening, so why is the evidence missing? The publicly available explanation is that they obtain it second-hand from some of the companies that you can see. The non-publically available answer is that governments receive entire databases of movement from the worldwide Domain Name Server and router network so setting cookies on your computer is not necessary. Check out this story about the NSA's massive new information center in Utah. However, if you are engaging in suspicious activity and worry that Big Brother might be watching you, be sure to check with Collusion to see whether NSA.gov, FBI.gov, CIA.gov, DEA.gov, or some other .gov element is there. If it is, be afraid. Be very afraid.
These items are an archive of past Topical Smorgasbord items that have appeared on the RF Cafe homepage. In keeping with the "cafe" genre, these tidbits of information are truly a smorgasbord of topics. They all pertain to topics that are related to the general engineering and science theme of RF Cafe.
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Please send me an e-mail if you have a good subject.