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Mozilla Lightbeam adds crowdsourcing to shine light on web privacy

Revamps old 'Collusion' Firefox add-on

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Mozilla’s ‘Collusion’ web privacy add-on has been re-launched under the name ‘Lightbeam’ with new features its idealistic creators believe will make it easier for users to understand, control and even crowdsource data on the intrusive side of website behaviour.

Originally announced as a Firefox add-on in February 2012, Collusion never quite caught on as a mainstream tool, something the Foundation puts down to the timing of what was an experimental version 1.0 rather than any lack of user interest. 

Undeterred, Mozilla's committed coders have come back with a second cut that extends the original’s concept of visualising in real time the way websites and their mysterious affiliates track visitors in complex ways users can't see let alone understand.

Techworld was unable to preview Lightbeam in advance but new features include better graphing and geographic data, a timed view that plots a user's site history over 24 hours, and the ability to add sites to a ‘watch list’ that can also be used to block the most troublesome ones. A new list view offer a table of all sites visited, giving inght into sites that were visited intentonally as well as  third parties that were not.

The most significant change of all is a new crowdsourcing database, a mechanism for Lightbeam users to share their experience of sites with the whole community, gaining the same insight in return.

“We describe it as a ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment as users can pull back the curtain,” enthused Mozilla’s head of global privacy and public policy Alex Fowler of Lightbeam’s ability to reveal the inner workings of the web.

“This is an effort to create more transparency. It is an educational tool. Mozilla is building a grassroots movement.”

The educational theme was central to the add-on’s purpose, he said. The challenge for privacy was that Internet users are kept in the dark about how their behaviour, interests and personal data are collected, which made informed consent at best vague.

But why the name change? 'Collusion' sounds about right to describe the sneakiness of the web economy surely. “Lightbeam just describes the concept better,” insisted Fowler.

One blind spot at the moment is the lack of a mobile dimension to Lightbeam although Mozilla hopes that will be possible on its own Firefox OS platform at least; Google and Apple, meanwhile, probably have less to gain from the sort of transparency built into Lightbeam because it would upset advertisers. The Foudation is also looking at how the crowdsourced data might be of use to publishers.

Mozilla and its community is undoubtedly the most credible home for an idea but the challenges remain large. The software is really supposed to be a starting point for others to develop into the education tool that Fowler believes it can become.

If Snowden confirmed the suspicion that the spooks are watching web users, Lightbeam could be be a way for people to get to grips with the more mundane, low-level surveillance that remains just as mysterious to many.

Alex Fowler and Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman will be attending this weekend’s Mozilla Festival in London.


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