Tools that help us see the data behind the browser

Browser plug-ins that block ads can reveal a lot about the wider network of where your data flows

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of the Living With Data series exploring how our online data is tracked, collected and used. Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email the Decoder at or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues! 

Those retargeted ads — like socks that stalk us on the Internet — are unsettling because we can’t see how our data is being shared behind the scenes. How does one site know about my activity on another site?

Data has a strange relationship with visibility. These digital traces make all our browsing behavior available to the companies that have access to it. But as users, we don’t often get to see data the way those companies do. And the entire system is complex enough that there isn’t one company that sees the complete picture.

Our vision is hampered. Data flows behind the browser, floating up to the cloud. One of the goals of this series is to point out practical tools that address this visibility problem.

Disconnect is, first and foremost, an ad- and cookie-blocking browser plug-in that reveals all the advertisers, analytics services and social networks that connect to your browser each time you load a Web page. Disconnect presents in a network graph (inspired by its predecessor Collusion) all the connections between more than 2,000 third-party trackers that surface as you browse. We can more clearly see the connections between sites when we follow the common threads.

Disconnect provides users with a lot of granular control over which sites to block or unblock. That level of detail contributes to its usefulness as a tool for building awareness about the complexity behind any given webpage. Disconnect is an open source project, with a pay-what-you-want donation model that keeps it up and running.

Disconnect reveals who is paying attention to what you browse.
Screen shot of Disconnect / Sara M. Watson

Ghostery is another browser plug-in that similarly reveals how many third parties are involved in a page. The plug-in shows “the invisible Web — cookies, tags, Web bugs, pixels and beacons.” Watching the purple box as a page loads, we are made more conscious of the broader data ecosystem.

Ghostery got its start in the advertising business as part of its parent company, Evidon, now renamed Ghostery Inc. It’s surprisingly difficult for companies to know what real people encounter as they surf. Ghostery’s opt-in Ghostrank feature shares your anonymous data about the links and campaign elements that you come across to give companies a better sense of the performance of their ads. Ghostery then sells reports to the industry based on this information.

Ghostery comes out of an industry-wide effort for better self-regulation. So consumers using the plug-in get to learn more about what’s going on behind the scenes, and the advertising industry gets a better view of our exposure and interactions with ads, especially when we block them. 

Ghostery Inc. helps companies that run websites know which third parties are displaying advertisements on their sites. It uses reported data from opt-in plug-ins to sell strategy comparison services to marketers. Even chief marketing operators in the industry need help to understand the complexity of the network of third parties on the websites they own and manage. Their services have the potential to help website managers be more conscientious about the data that comes through places they own and be more effective advertisers.

Floodwatch is another plug-in to monitor ads in your browser. It is currently available only for Google Chrome in alpha, but their beta is planned to release at the end of the week, October 3. This plug-in takes visualizing our browsing data to the next level.

Floodwatch captures details about all the ads you see, where you saw them, who published them, even their sizes and colors. So if you keep seeing sock ads, you can look back at your browsing history to track down when they started appearing. Or you can look back at category ads that are targeted when you are at an airport. It might also come in handy to look at all the ads your roommate targeted at you as a practical joke.

As more users join, Floodwatch will feature a “signature” comparison view that will allow you to explore your advertising profile compared with other demographic segments. We can start asking questions like “Is it just me, or am I seeing a lot of ads that are blue?”

Jer Thorp of the Office for Creative Research, which is building Floodwatch, describes it as a “strategic thinking tool.” It helps us make sense of the systems that are purposefully hidden and obscured. If users are armed with data, Floodwatch hopes the tool will raise awareness and allow them to make more informed decisions about their online behavior.

Floodwatch has a lot of privacy chops behind it. Also on the team is Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher who has investigated data practices with journalists at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Floodwatch gives users the opportunity to opt-in to contribute to a dataset that will allow researchers to look into the data practices of the larger network. Floodwatch hopes that the database will become a sort of "question farming tool," revealing things we never thought to ask about because the system was too obscured. 

These are just a few tools we can use to start interrogating our browsing data by making it visible. Each of these tools has a slightly different business model and motivation. Floodwatch is funded by the Ford Foundation and has academic ties, with aims to collect data for social good. It states in its clearly worded privacy policy, “We will never provide information or assistance to advertisers or companies seeking to use our data for profit.” Ghostery is clear on privacy and its parent company’s interests, even if it is a little entangled with the industry. Disconnect runs on the support of its users, kind of like public radio, so it’s likely to stick around as long as people find it useful and are willing to support it.

These tools are helping us and the leaders in the industry become more aware of the broader data ecosystem. But what will we do with that awareness? Ghostery industry customers might whittle down the number of third-party data companies they introduce on their websites, which is a net benefit to consumers. And we might make more informed choices about using ad-blocking tools or visiting certain sites and not others on the basis of the number of trackers we encounter.

We may not yet have a complete view of where our data flows, especially as mobile devices and the Internet of Things makes the network of data far more complex. But with tools like these, the landscape is starting to look a little less hazy and a little more clear.

The Living With Data series explores how our data is tracked, collected and used online. Do you have any questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email the Decoder at, tweet me @smwat, or submit your issue or question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!

Living with Data

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