Mozilla Lightbeam Digs Deep Into The Cookie Jar

Enid Burns for – Your Universe Online
Mozilla has its hand in the cookie jar, and wants to share the contents. The developer of the open source Firefox browser released Lightbeam for Firefox, an add-on that lets you track tracking cookies.
The new browser add-on will show users what companies are behind each cookie stored in their browsers, and what information those companies are gathering. Lightbeam was introduced on the Mozilla Blog by Alex Fowler who leads privacy and public policy for Mozilla.
Tracking cookies are hotly debated files stored within a browser that track browsing history on a single site or network of websites. Such cookies are often deployed by ad networks, and are able to identify a site visitor based on the cookie, and take note of the frequency and content of visits across a network. That information is often used to sell ads, and also to serve targeted ads to site visitors. Retailers also use cookies to store login information and track what products a consumer looks at and purchases.
Lightbeam aims to show users just who is behind a cookie. An ad network might place a cookie, but it has a publisher website viewing information, as well as specific advertisers. In a video introducing the new add-on Mozilla’s Fowler explains that he checks four websites each morning, and interacts with over 120 companies during the experience.
Lightbeam is the follow-up to Collusion, an add-on that Mozilla introduced a year ago that tackles privacy issues for internet users.
The add-on is accessible in the browser. It creates a snapshot that helps users see what companies are behind each cookie, and what information those companies are interested in tracking. The snapshot appears in the form of a meter or tag cloud to offer up the data in a visual manner that web users can understand.
Mozilla hopes that users will get a better idea of how first and third party sites are connected to each other. Users are also encouraged to contribute data to the Lightbeam database. “Call it a Wizard of Oz moment for the web, where users collectively provide a way to pull back the curtain see its inner-workings,” Fowler wrote in the blog post.
The app also offers support for publishers. Mozilla worked with a number of online publishers during the development of Lightbeam for Firefox. The goal for collaborating with publishers was to determine the value of crowdsourced data.
The cookie is a sore subject in the online and advertising industries. Internet security software often identifies cookies and alarms users. There are many users who delete cookies or opt for anonymous browsing. Others allow for all cookies, even ones that are too pervasive in the data they collect.
While Lightbeam provides users with information on cookies and gives them the choice to block certain cookies, Mozilla has taken more drastic measures recently. Earlier this year the non-profit developer said it would automatically block certain sites that use cookies in a version of Firefox the organization was developing. The action got a reaction from the ad industry, which relies on cookies to sell advertising.
The ongoing war on cookies has led some companies to seek alternatives. A recent report identified websites that use device fingerprinting to track users on computers and also mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. Reports from earlier this month found that Microsoft is also developing an alternative to cookies, the details of such a solution are still forthcoming.