See Who Has Their Eye On You With Collusion

Collusion is a new add-on for Firefox which is designed to show you how sites are recording information about you whilst you browse the web. It also reveals who is forwarding information about you to other websites. Though this information is not specifically identified, it does show a spider-graph of all the websites who are aware of your browsing. Including the ones you never even visited!

What It Does

Collusion presents you with a visual representation of browsed websites and third parties that are tracking you online. Websites often collect data about you, which is usually stored in cookies. These are small files containing an array of data that websites have instructed your computer to save. These cookies are then accessed when you return to a website and can help the website identify you, and even target adverts based on your previous browsing or shopping with them. Sometimes websites pass information about you across the internet. Collusion allows you to see which websites are doing this, and who is receiving that information.

Why It Is Of Use

It’s always useful to know which websites are logging information, especially if they are then pushing it to other sites. A great deal of concern has been going around recently about online privacy, especially when it comes to what websites can do with data they collect about you and your browsing habits. If you’d like to know more about this, you should take a look at this article by Nathaniel Mott, and perhaps this one too.

The other big reason for using Collusion is curiosity. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the information-swapping sites I visit mapped out like this. There are even parent-child arrows to show which website is passing on data to the others. Halos show which website you visited, and bland gray circles represent the websites who know about you even though you never visited them.

Google receives information about me, and passes it on too.

How To Use It

First you have to install Collusion as an add-on to Firefox. To do this, go to this page and click the yellow ‘Add To Firefox’ button. Then wait for Firefox to complete the installation. You don’t need to restart Firefox once the installation is complete either.

Please note that in order to see the Collusion icon, you must have your Add-On Bar visible. Check this in Firefox by going to View>Toolbars>Add-On Bar. When it’s ticked, the add-on bar should appear on your screen, for me it is at the bottom of the browser window, and the Collusion icon is on the right of this bar, represented by a white circle with a red edge. Clicking this brings up the Collusion window in a new tab.

When you first load Collusion it’s unlikely you will have much to see. It adds sites to it’s spider-graph as you visit them, so only sites visited after Collusion was installed will show up. Use your browser as you normally would for an hour or so, then come and have another look. You will probably have a spider-web that looks something like this…

Here are the cookies logged on my machine transferring data about my visits since I installed Collusion.

The next screenshot is my Collusion window after a full day’s worth of browsing.

All of these websites pass information to each other relating to me.

Something that was interesting about my spider-graph is that it has recorded traffic to – I don’t have a Facebook account, nor do I visit the site at all. So what is going on?

The empty parent circle represents the Appstorm network, and if you look back at the heading of this article you will see a Facebook Like button. That alone is enough to invoke a connection to Facebook regarding your visit. If you have an account with Facebook logged in on another tab, or your browser has saved your credentials, then plenty of websites with the Facebook Like button are letting Facebook know you visited them. This can help them target their advertising to you when you check up on your friends.

What You Can Do Now

The best thing to do with the information is learn about where its being passed to, and whether any destinations concern you.

One protective measure you can take is to block cookies being placed on your machine from websites you don’t trust. To do that, go into Firefox’s settings, then onto Privacy, and tinker with your Cookies settings. Some people recommend having Firefox set up to deny all 3rd party cookies, except for the websites you declare as permissible. This is often known as a whitelist, and can be very effective in ensuring only selected websites track what you are up to.

This is an example of whitelisting Cookies. You can set Firefox to erase all of your Cookie history when you close it, except for those belonging to the websites in the whitelist.

Alternatively if you aren’t that bothered by most of the websites, but do have concerns about one or two tracking you, then it’s also possible to blacklist these websites in the Cookie settings.

Final Thoughts

If you do a lot of browsing or web work, and are curious to know where traffic is bouncing to and fro, Collusion may be something worth installing. It is certainly interesting to come back to and check now and again. You would think that it is the big ticket websites like Amazon and eBay that track you with cookies, but it’s equally rife within Reddit and pretty much every website you visit.