lightbeamOver the last week, I've deliberately let anyone track me online.

Normally, I'm a little paranoid about my privacy and use the Ghostery and Adblock Plus extensions with my browser.

However, I saw that Mozilla had launched Lightbeam, which they claim is an easy way to see exactly which sites are tracking you.

So, I decided to give Lightbeam a try. I used Firefox as my default browser and turned off any features that might stop people from tracking me.

Here's what I found after a week of unrestrained tracking ...

Getting started with Lightbeam

Lightbeam is a Firefox add-on. It creates a record of every site that you've visited and ever site that is able to add track you with cookies.

 The Lightbeam site has a quick explanation of how it works:

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You can grab a copy of Lightbeam from the Firefox add-ons area.

The Lightbeam add-on will visualize all of the sites you've connected with. You can see the results in your browser and you can also choose to share the results with Mozilla.

You can access the Lightbeam results by clicking Tools > Lightbeam in the Firefox menu.

So who was tracking me?

After a week of browsing with the Lightbeam add-on, I could see a list of all the sites that had been tracking me.

In the image below, I've eliminated the sites that I visited directly and only included the Third Party sites that I did not visit.

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Here's a list of those sites, together with the company that owns the site:

  1. Google: Google-analytics.com
  2. Google: Doubleclick.net
  3. Edgecast: Net-mine.com
  4. Yahoo: Yieldmanager.com
  5. Google: Ajax.googleapis.com
  6. comScore: Scorecardresearch.com
  7. eXelate Media: Exelator.com
  8. AppNexus: Adnxs.com
  9. Media Innovation Group: Mookie1.com
  10. Demdex: Demdex.net
  11. Google: Fonts.googleapis.com
  12. Automattic: Gravatar.com
  13. Specific Media: SpecificClick.net
  14. Google: Googleadservices.com
  15. Google: GoogleSyndication.com
  16. Quantcast: Quantserve.com
  17. Lotame: Crwdcntrl.net
  18. Facebook: Facebook.net
  19. Tribal Fusion: Tribalfusion.com
  20. DirectREV: Directrev.com

So who was tracking me online? The simple answer was: Google and some other companies.

Here I've totalled up the connections across different companies:

  • Google: 207
  • Edgecast: 30
  • Yahoo: 26

In short, Google had over 6 as many connections to me as the rest of the web put together.

Here is Lightbeam's visual representation of the sites I was connected to. You can see the enormous G in the center of the image.

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These results are probably a little abnormal. For example, I'm am an unusually heavy user of Google services, and am unusually light user of Facebook.

However, my results really aren't that different from the norm. The Guardian partnered with Mozilla to visualize Lightbeam data and the chart below shows their results.

Google had the largest tracking site with Doubleclick, plus another entry in the top 10. The Guardian didn't break down the exact numbers, but using a visual estimate, the results show that Google's circles are at least twice as large as the second place site: Quantcast.

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Conclusion

Based on my personal results, and the general results that Mozilla shared with the Guardian, Lightbeam clearly pinpoints Google as the runaway leader in web-tracking.
 
Depending on your own usage patterns, Google may be collecting between 2 and 6 times as much data on you, compared to any site.

How to find out more

Many of the domain names used to track us are obscure. I had to do some searching to find out more about the likes of net-mine.com and scorecardresearch.com

There doesn't appear to be a single, central database of tracking sites.

Cookiecert.com provided the only searchable database. Sites like Abine.com, Donottrackplus.com and even theguardian.com do provide detail on tracking sites, but you have to use a search engine (like Google) to find their results.

Finally, it's worth noting that cookies are just one of many more ways that you can be tracked. Google and others are using alternative methods and coming up with better solutions,

 


About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.