Privacy on the Web: Lightbeam for Firefox

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The graph above depicts the information gathered by the Lightbeam application within Firefox, visually mapping the first and third party sites involved in a quick 20-minute session browsing the web. After visiting only six websites during this session, I was connected with over 80 third party sites – an unsettling realization for the average web user.

Many of these third party websites are essentially tracking your movements on the web, often for the purpose of advertising. As discussed in lecture, advertisers boost the value of their advertising space by tailoring content to match individual users and their specific interests, which is where these third party websites come in. For the purpose of this exercise, I was particularly interested in visiting e-commerce sites to discover whether there would be a heavier third party presence. My suspicions were confirmed after visiting Forever21.com, as well as Sephora.com – two popular online retailers. These sites generated the highest number of third party connections, most of which I verified to be digital advertising companies (e.g. Doubleclick.net), after further investigation of the URLs provided on the list.

Once these advertising companies gather data from my visits to these websites, my information is used and categorized to fit a specific market segment. This is how Facebook (another website that appeared frequently on the third party lists) advertisements are tailored so closely to fit the individual browsing the site. While cookies do not produce any particular malware concerns, they do raise issues concerning data privacy. While many of us would be surprised to discover just how many third party websites have access to our information, the reality of the matter is that big players on the web (e.g. Facebook) will always use this information, so long as they have the rights and ability to do so. However, Lightbeam does an excellent job of shedding insight on the various third party websites that are present while browsing the web. For anyone curious as to who is really watching their browsing behaviours, I would highly suggest installing the app.

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