When it comes to online security, most of us want to feel safe in the knowledge that our normal Internet behavior won't sacrifice our privacy. We all want to believe that when we surf the Web, the only person who knows what we are looking at are the people in view of the computer monitor and anyone we choose to allow into our intimate online lives. But, the truth is there are a lot of statistics and pieces of data being gathered about you every time you open a browser and start visiting Web sites.
The vast majority of this data mining is harmless. Most of us could care less if others know what browser we use, what operating system, where our Internet service provider's servers are located and the like. Generally, we don't care if Web sites track which pages we visit or how long we are there. That's pretty benign information. But, there can be a lot more to it.
Last week, Ned Hibberd from Fox 26 news contacted me about a Firefox extension called Collusion and asked if I would speak with him on camera about what it tells us about online data gathering. Never having heard of it, I did some research and was surprised at what I found.
Collusion was built by a developer at Mozilla, the company that created Firefox. It creates an interesting graphical representation of how different sites visited with the browser interact with other sites without visitors even knowing about it.
Many sites install nearly invisible pieces of code called "cookies" into browsers. Most cookies are built to improve the user's experience. For example, the first time you visit a news Web site today, you might get an annoying pop-up advertisement you have to close before you can start reading the site. That site's cookie prevents that ad from popping up again if you return to that site within the same day.
Other cookies are there to track your likes and dislikes as a way of serving advertising aimed specifically at you. If you, for example, really love Radiohead, the site may be able to put ads on pages you visit for purchasing tickets to see the band.
But, Collusion goes much deeper, not only tracking what other sites link to and from the one you are visiting, but if left open for a few hours, how all of those sites interact with one another. Once I had visited a few dozen Web sites, I noticed a massive pattern emerging with large dots on the screen representing huge ad services like Google, Nielsen and others that collect information from dozens of different sites.
It got me to thinking, what if they took all the data they routinely collected and combined it? Even worse, what if Google was able to attach that data to specific users via their Gmail or Google+ account? Imagine how much knowledge these companies would have of your activities online, your interests and things you may not want anyone knowing.
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While it is highly unlikely most companies use this research for nefarious purposes, tools like Collusion help to shed some light on who is gathering the data and maybe how to shield yourself from some of it.
Below is the video segment that aired on Fox 26 on Friday.