Visualizing How You Are Being Tracked Using Mozilla Lightbeam

Everyone hears that they are being tracked online. They know that Facebook, Google, and Twitter track your activity in order to send you targeted ads, and that governments are tracking your activity for whatever purposes they desire. What most of us don't realize is the breadth and depth of the problem, and how visiting a single website can expose you to hundreds of different trackers.

Let's call this what it really is, surveillance. Whether it is a company, a web operator, a government, an internet provider, or a hacker, they are watching your activity. They are pulling any data they can from your browser and storing it away, often without your consent. Users have little to no agency in selecting whether they are tracked or not.

First, let's see how bad the problem is. I'm going to visit a website that I've ran across that uses a lot of tracking. This is a large website that generally gets millions of unique hits a year. I will leave out the name of the site as my aim in this article is not to smear a bad actor, but to show how bad the problem is. I'm using a default install of Firefox with no options changes, and the Mozilla Lightbeam extension for Firefox with its protection disabled (to mimic the behavior of the browser without Lightbeam).

Here is how many sites your browser hits, just by visiting the front page of this site and doing nothing else.

104 trackers from visiting the front page of a single website. And this is ignoring advanced tracking methods like user-agent calls, WebRTC, and silent government collection.

There is something you can do! Spend a few minutes to harden your browser using our Firefox Security Hardening Guide! Just doing step 4 of the guide (which also significantly hardens your security) brings the number of tracking sites down to 94.

Enabling the extensions in the guide would bring it down to 1, but this particular website is coded so that it wont even load unless you allow one specific cookie through. So it goes down to 2. They are probably hoping that their Distil Networks cookie will persuade users to disable cookie blocking for their site, so that they can track them with their other 103 third-party sites.

Here is the error that you get if you block all cookies from this site.

Spread the word about tracking websites! Increase your privacy and security with our guide!

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