If you log on in the morning, check your Gmail, peruse the headlines on Google News, and check the weather, you've only interacted with Google and The Weather Channel, right? Not exactly.
The complex nature of the Internet means your activity is tracked all across the web, but just how expansive is that tracking? A new Firefox add-on from Mozilla, dubbed Lightbeam, helps you visualise how companies follow you online.
"While revelations about government surveillance continue to stun people around the world, there's another area of online data collection with its own complicated transparency challenges that remains important to users," Mozilla's Alex Fowler wrote in a blog post.
"And that's the diverse range of third party companies that shape so much of our online experiences today from advertising to social sharing to personalization. Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we're unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders."
Lightbeam for Firefox is available now. Once installed, you can view your web activity in three different formats: Graph, Clock, and List.
The default Graph view displays your third-party relationships on the web. The main site with which you interact - Facebook or Google, for example - is represented as a circle, with third-party sites springing up around that circle, represented by triangles. Delve further into a site, and watch more triangles pop up. Data can be reset or saved for later analysis.
Seconds after I navigated to Facebook, for example, I already had four triangles, including Akamai and DoubleClick. I then opened up another tab to search the names of some of the triangles, and a Bing circle popped up, quickly followed by some cookie sites.
I opened up a private browsing window to see if activity there would be tracked. A message appeared atop Lightbeam that said "connections made in private browsing windows will be visualized in Lightbeam but that data is neither stored locally nor will it ever be shared, even if sharing is enabled."
"Information gathered in private browsing mode will be deleted whenever Lightbeam is restarted, and is not collected at all when Lightbeam is not open," Mozilla said.
Clock view, meanwhile, shows your web activity over the course of a day, split up by time, while List view simply lists all the sites with which you've interacted.
Mozilla also wants to use Lightbeam to create a larger view of the web, and encouraged users to contribute their data to the Lightbeam database. Ultimately, that data will be accessible to publishers and other groups that might benefit from it.
"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. "With the Lightbeam for Firefox add-on and open data, we're providing a valuable community research platform to raise awareness, promote analysis and, ultimately, affect change in the areas of tracking and privacy."
Lightbeam for Firefox is developed with support from the Ford Foundation and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, as well as faculty and students from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.