Shining a Lightbeam on the Web

Jonathan Strickland


Have you ever wondered how many entities are tracking your Web browsing activity during a particular session? How you end up seeing ads related to stuff you were looking at three tabs back and 30 Web pages ago? The folks at Mozilla are working to make it easier for Firefox users to see what's going on with a browser extension called Lightbeam.

Lightbeam, which is part of an older, similar project called Collusion, provides users with a few different ways to see how companies track their online behavior. You can view the information as a list, view tracking activity chronologically in Clock mode or even get a full visualization in the Graph. You'll see who is taking an interest in your clicks.

This really covers advertisers and not some of the sneakier agents out there on the Web. It could be a really eye-opening experience for some Web surfers as they see exactly how much of their behavior is observed, categorized and filed away for future use. Some might call it exploitation. Personally, I think it's a tool that can be really useful when applied in an ethical and restrained way.

For example, if I'm looking at reviews of various DSLR cameras and spend a lot of time looking at a particular model, I don't mind it if I see that model pop up when I visit a site like Amazon. The same is true for other searches as well. But when a company begins to extrapolate more information about me based upon simple searches, that can be a little disturbing.

Lightbeam isn't a tool that will help you avoid detection. But it will help you see exactly how much of your behavior is catching someone's eye. That knowledge might prompt you to disable cookies, which will hamper those that wish to track your behavior. And it might even lead to sweeping changes if enough users get upset.