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Track the trackers with Collusion: Interview with Mozilla’s Ryan Merkley

Jun 21, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Even by using privacy add-ons and telling sites not to track you, tracking that builds behavior profiles is out of control. Collusion is an add-on that will help you visualize that tracking. It was introduced by Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla, during a TED talk titled Tracking the Trackers. Here is an interview with Ryan Merkley, Chief Operating Officer for the Mozilla Foundation, about Collusion, being tracked online and privacy.

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Credit: Illus_man/Shutterstock

There are many flavors of privacy add-ons for different browsers, but to get the global tracking “big picture,” if you haven’t already then you really need to try out Collusion. The “interactive, real-time visualization of entities that track your behavior” when you are surfing says a lot. After the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) struck out at Microsoft for turning on Do Not Track (DNT) by default in IE10, I scoffed at DAA’s statement about advertisers supporting and enforcing the “appropriate standards for collecting and using web viewing data” through “strong self-regulation.” Try out Collusion and you’ll see how laughable that statement seems to be. Here’s the demo as well as the add-on for Firefox or for Chrome.

Gary Kovacs, the CEO of Mozilla, gave a fantastic TED talk about “Tracking the trackers” and showed off Collusion to the audience. By now more than 1.6 million people have watched Kovacs’ TED talk, so if you haven’t then please do watch the video.

Among the eye-opening statements, Kovacs said, “Privacy is not an option, and it shouldn’t be the price we accept for just getting on the Internet. Our voices matter and our actions matter even more.” After you download and install Collusion in Firefox, you can “see who is tracking you across the Web and following you through the digital woods,” Kovacs stated. “Going forward, all of our voices need to be heard. Because what we don’t know can actually hurt us. Because the memory of the Internet is forever. We are being watched. It’s now time for us to watch the watchers.”

I’ve been using Collusion for some time now and it is jaw-dropping to watch all the sites that still stalk us across the web even with DNT and privacy add-ons.

The Collusion page states: “The Ford Foundation is supporting Mozilla to develop the Collusion add-on so it will enable users to not only see who is tracking them across the Web, but also to turn that tracking off when they want to.” Recently I had an opportunity to ask Matt Thompson, Chief Storyteller & Communications Director for the Mozilla Foundation, and Ryan Merkley, Chief Operating Officer for the Mozilla Foundation, some questions.

Interview with Mozilla Foundation Chief Operating Officer Ryan Merkley:

I wanted to clarify that each of the preferences, like enabling Firefox Privacy “Tell websites I do not want to be tracked” and all the various privacy add-ons are stopping more of the tracking that builds behavior profiles than if I were using nothing?

Merkley: Privacy add-ons are one way to block trackers. The “Do Not Track” setting adds information to your browser that tells sites you don’t want to be tracked. Your tracking information is still sent, but sites that respect Do Not Track do not use it.

When the browser is restarted with no history, cookies or anything, does the behavior profile tracking start over again? Or does it build from storage somewhere? If I do not reset Collusion, then the same places that were tracking are still there and continue to grow. It’s horrifying and infuriating.

Merkley: If you reset Collusion, your session data is gone. All your tracking data is stored on your computer — we don’t host any of it.

What do you recommend please to advise readers how to best protect their privacy?

Merkley: The most important thing for readers is to be informed about tracking and privacy. Collusion shows some tracking information, but you can also check out the information provided by the services you use. How are they using your data? Can you delete it? Can you take it out if you want to? These are good questions to ask, and being informed so you can make good choices is the first step.

Can we turn tracking completely off, or is that what Do Not Track me does? (There’s still a lot of tracking!)

Merkley: Collusion doesn’t turn tracking off, but future versions will offer some blocking as an option. Do Not Track sends information to all trackers that you don’t want to be tracked.

“Through our work with the Ford Foundation, we’ll be building outreach campaigns to help people understand online data tracking – both the benefits and the issues – so they can make their own choices about how they want to be tracked (or choose not to be tracked at all).” Have you begun the campaigns?

Merkley: Our campaigns have not yet begun. We’ll be continuing our work with Ford over the balance of the year.

Meanwhile, I’ll be showing you various different privacy add-ons from time to time.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.