06/27/2012 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Collusion: Tracking the Online Tracker

Ever do a quick Google search for "pizza delivery" and forget to put in your town? I did and, conveniently enough, pizza delivery locations pop up within a 20-mile radius of my home. And after I searched for flights between California and Washington, DC, I began seeing ads pop up for trips suspiciously similar to that very flight.

Look, few of us still imagine that we visit the Internet without being tracked to some degree, and in many instances (like pizza delivery options), it can prove convenient. It's great for my personal "butler" to know that I might not want a pizza shop 1,000 miles away, but at what point does tracking my online activity go from convenient to creepy?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, Acxiom, described I believe quite accurately as a "data refinery" in Conway, Arkansas:

"... peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the IRS, or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google. If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams -- and on and on."

Axciom helped the feds understand the 9/11 hijackers, largely because it makes it its business to map out the "genome" of more than 500 million individual consumers, selling this data to online marketers.

With more than 23,000 computer servers collecting data on individuals at any given time, such data refineries have nearly perfected selling people out (literally). According to the Times, "Its servers process more than 50 trillion data 'transactions' a year. Company executives have said its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States."

Worse, they are doing it in real time and without anyone knowing about it. My company exists to protect people's privacy online so I live, eat, and breathe consumer privacy and even I was taken aback by the numbers.

The exponential nature of the third-party tracking machines, such as Axciom, are alarming and frankly hard to grasp. But now comes a game-changer: The experimental Firefox add-on called Collusion. It shows you, in real time and with eye-opening visuals, all the third parties that are tracking your online movements. It doesn't just show you who is tracking you directly, but how that data is being shared with other trackers who also share the data. With just a few clicks onto websites, the spiderweb visual grows far beyond where even I would have expected. The more you browse the Web, the more complicated the visual of the "collusion" really becomes.


The sheer image of who is tracking you and where that information is going is quite an expose. The speed at which it is happening, however, is what really blew me away. But a warning: Check it out and you will never feel the same about the Internet.

While tracking can provide more relevant information for online searches and other services, consumers should have control of their data and the ability to stop companies from tracking personal information. I found being tracked and monitored by the same company working to profile the 9/11 hijackers -- without consent or even knowledge that it is happening at all -- quite disconcerting.

Watching the Collusion, however, showed me quite clearly that we've more than crossed the line from convenience to creepy.