Free 'Lightbeam' browser add-on shines a light on who is watching you online

When you visit one website, it is rarely just one website. Logging onto a single page can result in information about your visit being shared with dozens of other businesses.

Mozilla, the non-profit organization that programs the popular Firefox web browser, recently published a piece of software to help the end user visualize how their internet usage is being tracked. They call it "Lightbeam" and offer it as a free add-on for Firefox users.

Upon being installed in the browser, the software starts to build a database of the sites the user has visited and which third party sites are active on those pages. Third parties could include advertising services, social media or software used to build the website's services.

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In the primary Lightbeam visualization, websites the user visited are hubs and third party services are seen as spokes.

"I think a lot of people should they use a tool like Lightbeam would be very surprised at just how many people have tracked them and the interactions between them," said Steve Beaty, security engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

KMGH and Team 10 tested Lightbeam on one of our own computers. We visited 10 websites in about 10 minutes and Lightbeam showed us those sites were interconnected with 107 others.

We also visited a dozen children's websites, including Nick Junior, Barbie, Disney and the Girl Scouts. Lightbeam showed us that those 12 websites shared our activity with 65 other sites.

"They can easily get personal information about me, so what I search for Amazon becomes very, very relevant possibly for putting ads to me in Facebook. That happens," Beaty said.

For example, Yahoo shared our cookies with six other websites. One of them was the mortgage company Bankrate.com.

"If you walk up to most people they've got hundreds of thousands of cookies in there, that have been tracking them on an ongoing basis," Beaty said.

Lightbeam also revealed that that some of the third party sites shared information with approximately 40 others.

Websites have put small files, called "Cookies," onto visitors' computers to track usage for nearly two decades. Cookies are discoverable inside a folder on any connected computer's hard drive, but they can be blocked within the options of many web browsers.

In Firefox, for example, the controls for cookies can be accessed in the options menu, by choosing to "use custom settings for history." In Chrome, the option is buried in under the "Advanced Settings" menu, which is a subset of the "Content Settings" menu. In Internet Explorer, cookies can be blocked within the "Advanced Privacy Settings" in the "Internet Options" menu.

To download Lightbeam for your Firefox browser, go to the "Tools" menu and click "Ad-Ons." Search for "Lightbeam" and install it to your browser.

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