The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF.org) has released its free Privacy Badger plug-in for Firefox and Chrome that shows trackers and widgets that may be surreptitiously recording your web activity. This would include such things as third party tracking cookies placed by ad networks or “widgets” that create Like buttons for Facebook or a “Tweet this” function that also collects information about what you’re doing.
“It’s there to protect you against creepy online advertising, those adds that mysteriously know way too much about your life and the visible trackers that are often embedded in pages,” said EFF Technology Projects Director Peter Eckersley in an interview.
It doesn’t block any content but, by default, does block the code that “track you and collect private information,” said Eckersley. The ads all come from other websites, he said and those third parties “are the worst threats in terms of tracking you and collecting your private information.” He said that the extension analyzes Like buttons and, in some cases, drops in a replacement button that won’t track you unless you click on it (some track you simply if you visit the page they’re on).
The extension is configured to block surreptitious trackers but you can easily override the settings for any site by sliding red blocking indicator to the right either to just block the tracker’s cookies (yellow) or allow both the tracker and its cookies (green).
In a FAQ, EFF explains how Privacy Badger differs from similar produts.
“Although we like Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Ghostery and similar products (in fact Privacy Badger is based on the ABP code!), none of them are exactly what we were looking for. In our testing, all of them required some custom configuration to block non-consensual trackers. Several of these extensions have business models that we weren’t entirely comfortable with. And EFF hopes that by developing rigorous algorithmic and policy methods for detecting and preventing non-consensual tracking, we’ll produce a codebase that could in fact be adopted by those other extensions, or by mainstream browsers, to give users maximal control over who does and doesn’t get to know what they do online.”
A tool for bloggers and webmasters to check their own sites
I installed the extension on Chrome and was unpleasantly suprised that my own sites: LarrysWorld.com and SafeKids.com had a couple of hidden trackers. I always thought of myself as a good citizen when it comes to tracking and I certainly don’t collect any information (other than IP address, which are automatically collected by my hosting service, but I never look at them). But I do post Google AdSense ads as a source of revenue and those ads are collecting information from visitors. Eckersley said that one of the goals of this project is to “incentivise better practices.” He’s encouraging web operators and bloggers to seek out ways to monetize their sites by partnering with companies that respect user privacy. It will be interesting to see if this and similar tools have any impact on Google and other ad network operators and their partners.
Disclosure: In addition to providing ad revenue through AdSense, Google helps support ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director.