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who's tracking youTrack the sites that are tracking you. Collusion is a free extension for Firefox that records every time you’re tracked online, so you can see who is tracking you and try to work out why. The Mozilla Foundation says the extension is intended to help teach users about online tracking.

“Not all tracking is bad,” says Collusion’s site at Mozilla.org “but most tracking happens without users’ consent and without their knowledge. That’s not okay. It should be you who decides when, how and if you want to be tracked. Collusion will be a powerful tool to help you do that.”

You’re being watched. As you browse this site, you’re being tracked by Google Analytics, which many sites on the web use to monitor their users. If you’re signed into a social networking account, that’s likely tracking you too. And those ads you see? Most of them are tracking you in some way, following you as you jump from site to site to find out what you’re interested in.

Maybe you’ve noticed this before. You researched a product on Amazon, only to see ads for that specific product on half the sites you visit later. That’s called a retargeting ad, and it’s just one of the many uses sites around the web have for monitoring and analyzing your activity. Social networks like Facebook see this sort of tracking as part of their long-term strategy – the information they have about their users is a lot of what makes that company valuable. And MakeUseOf allows ad networks to track your activity so those networks can track which ads you do and don’t click – on this and other sites. We’re not an outlier: most sites do this.

You’re not paranoid – they really are watching you. With Collusion you can visualize who is tracking you on which sites.

Tracking The Trackers

Install Collusion and it will start tracking the trackers immediately. You should see a new icon, at the bottom of your browser:

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who's tracking you

If you don’t see the icon you’ll need to enable the add-on bar – right-click the empty space between the URL and address bar and you’ll get the option to do so. You can click the icon at any time to open the Collusion chart, which kind of looks like a spider web:

who's tracking me online

Icons at the center of the web are actual sites you’ve visited, but if you’re like most people the vast majority of services you see here aren’t ones you recognize. These are the various services those sites allow to track you. Click one of the sites you’ve visited and you’ll see a list of all the tracking services that site enables:

who's tracking me online

I’m not going to lie – we enable a lot of them.

Some of these tracking services are ad networks, which like to watch people move across various sites to figure out their interests. Some of these services are social networks, which follow you around the web, courtesy of share buttons and other integrated tools. And some are related to the site itself. Google Analytics, for example, is a tool we and many other sites use to find out which sort of articles people like the best – which in turn teaches us to write more content people like to read.

The vast majority of tracking sites, however, are advertising related. Collusion allows you not only to see which services a particular site allows to track you. However, you can also see which ad networks live on multiple sites you use regularly. Click any ad network to see:

who's tracking you

The information isn’t necessarily 100% accurate, but it does give you insight into what happens every time you use the web.

Ready to give this a shot? Go ahead and download Collusion for Firefox.

Wait…What?

Not sure what’s going on here? Tina’s piece on what the web knows about you How Much Does The Web Know About You? How Much Does The Web Know About You? Have you ever googled your own name or that of someone else? About two years ago I searched the name of a friend. I was hoping to find his travel photos, but what I discovered... Read More can help explain, as can Joshua’s piece on how you sold your soul to the Internet 3 Ways You've Sold Your Soul To The Internet 3 Ways You've Sold Your Soul To The Internet You may not have participated in a blood ritual sacrifice, and you also may not have sworn your firstborn to a warlock. However, chances are if you spend any time on Facebook, Twitter, or Google,... Read More .

Whatever you think about online tracking – and many people argue it’s what makes the web work today – you have to admit that the vast majority of web users have no idea that they’re being tracked to this extent. Collusion helps, by visually showing you which sites are allowing services to track you. Many will shrug it off, but others will be surprised to learn just how many entities are following them around the web.

My colleague James argues it’s impossible for a content company to be profitable without such tracking. He’s gone so far as to call AdBlock, Ghostery and NoScript evil AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil AdBlock, NoScript & Ghostery - The Trifecta Of Evil Over the past few months, I've been contacted by a good number of readers who have had problems downloading our guides, or why they can't see the login buttons or comments not loading; and in... Read More for making it harder for that tracking to happen. He runs more websites than me – I just write – so I’m not the expert here. Still, I can’t help but think there must be a way to make money online without this sort of tracking.

Concerned about being tracked? Well, we’ve shown you how to block social networks from tracking you How To Block Facebook And Other Social Networks From Tracking You Online How To Block Facebook And Other Social Networks From Tracking You Online Whenever you visit a site with a Like, Tweet or +1 button, you're actually sharing data with Facebook, Twitter or Google. And that's not all. There are hundreds of advertising and data collection companies that... Read More . You can use private browsing when you don’t want to be tracked Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Private-browsing mode has many other names, including "incognito mode" in Chrome and "InPrivate Browsing" in Internet Explorer. Some people refer to private-browsing mode as "porn mode", but it isn't just for porn addicts. It can... Read More – it’s particularly useful while you’re shopping online, to avoid price hikes that result from tracking. You should also look into Do Not Track, though arguably it’s becoming less useful as ad networks back out.

Do you have some more tips to find out who’s tracking you online? Leave them in the comments below.

  1. Abhijith R
    March 21, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    We can use DoNotTrackMe instead of just seeing the trackers it block them.

  2. Gourav Kumar
    March 21, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Tracking The Trackers sounds cool !!!!!

  3. Florin Ardelian
    March 20, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Collusion is also available for Chrome, not just Firefox.

  4. dragonmouth
    March 20, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    It would be nice if somewhere, someone mentioned what versions of FF will Collusion work with. I tried installing it but was told that Collusion is "not available" for my version of FF.

  5. dragonmouth
    March 20, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Collusion sounds like a interesting extension. I think I shall install it to track the trackers.

    James has chosen the most obvious, least imaginative business plan. It is akin to standing on a corner with a cup and wanting passersby to drop coins in the cup. Many of the passersby are ignoring him so he throws a hissy fit. There are millions of websites that are not only surviving but making money in spite of ad blockers.

    • justinpot
      March 20, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      Wait, ads are akin to standing on the corner and asking for money? I would think that a donate button would be akin to that...

      Here's a question, though: how should a site like MakeUseOf make money if not for ads? Would you pay for the site if we asked it? Under which circumstances? And remember, I'm not asking for what a hypothetical person would pay for: I'm asking what you, personally, would pay for. Pay 50 cents, get the right to leave a comment? Subscription for $5 a month? Is there anything you'd actually consider?

    • Florin Ardelian
      March 20, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      I did the math a while ago, I would pay about $20/month to all the websites I am using, divided proportionally to the time I spend on each particular website. It's not perfect, because websites that offer content for offline use (downloads) would make less than those that offer strictly online content, but it's a concept that I believe is worth looking into.

      If you actually check your web logs and do your math, I would love to know if the answer would be satisfying. Is it more or less than your current income from ads?

    • justinpot
      March 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm

      Depending on how many sites you frequent it's probably better. The real challenge, then, is to set up a system where such payments are possible – and working out how many people would actually pay.

      It's not impossible – public radio makes great content with a similar model. But it's going to take a lot of work to create, and something tells me the people who use adblock are going to be the ones who don't pay...but that might be just so much prejudice on my part.

    • dragonmouth
      March 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      I don't single out MUO for any special treatment, I abhor ALL ads and commercials. 99.44% of them are pushing stuff that I am not interested in. Besides, the vast majority of commercials are offensive, trying to make the viewer feel like a moron if (s)he does not use the advertised product.

      When watching TV, I switch channels when commercials come on. When listening to radio, I tune out the commercials. The only advertisements I look at are grocery store fliers.

  6. Chris Marcoe
    March 20, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I find it interesting that there are people who think adblock is "evil". Well, I would expect people from compnaies that get blocked to think that, but for someone in the IT industry to think that...well, jsut doesn't sound right.

    Much like an article about "Any legitimate company that does this (check-box already checked and it DLs a tool bar)" is wrong.

    • justinpot
      March 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm

      The argument goes like this: websites make their money from ads, which helps pay for bandwidth. If you block ads but use the site, you're costing that site money but not helping them make any. Additionally, these plugins also screw up other features on the site, which leads to more support calls.

      That's James' argument, anyway. But yeah: toolbar bundling is also pretty freaking evil.

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