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Tech-Friendly: Lightbeam for Firefox displays who might be watching you on the web

November 6, 2013

By Paul Gorski

The Mozilla group (https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/mission/) has released the Lightbeam add-on for its flagship browser Firefox that gives users the ability to see, in part, who might be tracking them while they surf the Internet. Lightbeam requires Firefox v19 or greater and may be downloaded at https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/lightbeam/.

According to the Mozilla website: “Lightbeam is a Firefox add-on that enables you to see the first- and third-party sites you interact with on the Web. Using interactive visualizations, Lightbeam shows you the relationships between these third parties and the sites you visit.”

What this means is that Lightbeam illustrates through maps and charts who you are knowingly visiting and who might be tracking your visits to these sites and how that information is being passed along to others without your knowledge. Lightbeam is not a security solution, but it can show you how your personal surfing habits are being shared across the web.

Lightbeam is relatively new, and Mozilla is still working out the bugs. Most of the user reviews are favorable; most of the negative reviews stating the information provided is “confusing.” I must admit, seeing graphically all the connections, all the linkages between my visited sites and the tracking sites is a little overwhelming.

Why worry about being tracked? The “trackers” don’t actually know who I am, do they? It doesn’t take that much information to personally identify a user on the web. Researchers have been able to personally identify Netflix users solely on anonymous Netflix ratings and postings on other public websites. More on tracking research here: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/08/04/the-information-that-is-needed-to-identify-you-33-bits/.

Lightbeam won’t prevent you from being tracked on the web, but can help educate you as to how widespread your surfing information is being shared. Lightbeam requires the Mozilla Firefox browser, which may be downloaded at: http://www.getfirefox.com.

Paul Gorski (www.paulgorski.com) has been a technology manager nearly 20 years, specializing in workflow solutions for printing, publishing and advertising computer users. Originally destined to be a chemist, his interest in computers began in college when he wrote a program to analyze data from lab instruments he hard-wired to the back of an Apple Iie.

From the Nov. 6-12, 2013, issue

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