Mozilla’s Collusion plug-in aims to expose online tracking

Mozilla Collusion

Speaking at the TED conference yesterday, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs demonstrated Collusion, a new add-on for Firefox that aims to reveal the complex web of connections used by Web sites, advertisers, behavioral marketers, and other third parties to track users across the Web. Instead of users relying on a flat list of cookies and a limited set of privacy-related checkboxes, users will be able to see how particular sites are tracking them — and how some third parties can watch users move from site to site, accumulating information on their actions the whole way. And Collusion is now getting some high-profile help: the philanthropic Ford Foundation has ponied up a $300,000 grant to support Collusion’s development.

“Few people realize the extent to which the tracking of our online activities is occurring, and who is doing it,” Kovacs wrote in a blog post. “At best, it would make most uncomfortable. And at it’s worst, it makes many of us outraged, particularly those of us who are parents.”

At a basic level, Collusion is a visualization tool that enables users to see the relationships between sites the visit and the advertising, marketing, and analytic services that, in turn, may be used by those sites. For instance, Collusion may show that a user visiting a popular Web site also picks up cookies for third parties engages in behavioral tracking. When the user visits another site, they may discover that new site also refers to some of the same third parties, giving those companies a birds-eye view of online activity. Collusion currently taps into information from to explicitly identify sites that engage in behavioral tracking — Collusion’s developer admits to “sort of using without their permission.” Collusion is also providing access to TrackerBlock for Firefox and Internet Explorer to help users block specific third-party trackers; the full version of Collusion will enable users to opt in to anonymously sharing data they gather about Web trackers to help analyze how online tracking is taking place.

Mozilla is the first to acknowledge that “not all tracking is bad.” However, in an age when privacy gaffes and security flaws are seemingly everyday news items, increasing users’ awareness of how and when they’re being tracked can’t help but be useful — and lead to more-informed discussion.

Firefox users can download a preliminary version of the Collusion plug-in for free.