Ghostery, a tool for paranoiacs everywhere

A couple of years ago I read one of the wittiest and most trenchant observations about the online world: "If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold" (a user named "blue_beetle" on MetaFilter).

Ghostery logo

To make you a product you have to be sliced and diced, measured and pigeonholed, and then packaged and sold and to do all that you have to be tracked. But who is doing the tracking? If you’re of a paranoid persuasion you might be interested to know there’s an app, or rather, a browser plug-in, for that …

Ghostery screen shot

Available for Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari on the desktop and as a Web browser for iOS and a plugin for Firefox Android the Ghostery plugin detects:

… the ‘invisible' web, detecting trackers, web bugs, pixels, and beacons placed on web pages by Facebook, Google, and over 500 other ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers - all companies interested in your activity.

Ghostery not only lets you see which service is trying to track you on the page you’re browsing but also lets you block the tracker and provides information on the company responsible.

As of writing, Ghostery can block 1,937 trackers, detect 2,300 tracking patterns, and the publisher, Ghostery, Inc., claims an installed base of over 20 million users.

Ghostery is, and will always be, free—no hidden costs, no trying to sell a ‘premium version’ or other related products. It’s also easy as pie to set up – just install it and in a few clicks you’re browsing the web the way you want to browse.

The publisher makes money only from Ghostery users who opt in to the Ghostrank service (currently about half of the installed base):

Ghostrank data is about tracking elements and the webpages on which they are found, not you or your browsing habits. Ghostrank data will never be used to track individuals or to target ads to them.

The actual data provided by anonymous opt-in users consists of:

  • The tracker identified by Ghostery
  • The page where the tracker was found
  • The protocol of the page where the tracker was found
  • Information showing if the tracker was blocked
  • The URL of the tracker itself
  • The time it takes for the page and tracker to load
  • The tracker’s position on the page
  • The browser you’re using
  • The country you’re in
  • Ghostery version information
  • Standard web server log information, such as the IP address and http headers. (Please note that we do not store IP addresses.)

The company massages that data and sells it: 

... to brands and websites to help them evaluate their relationships with their marketing partners. Some ad tech companies use the data to compare themselves to their competition, while other research firms buy it to learn more about the industry. We also provide data to consumer advocacy groups like the Better Business Bureau (BBB), journalists writing stories about privacy, and students and activists involved in related projects and papers.

I’ve been running Ghostery for a while and it’s amazing just how much tracking is really going on; the majority of commercial sites deliver 20 or more trackers (and that’s not including whatever the NSA might be doing).

Ghostery is a must-have plugin and the ability to restrict and or block who gets to see what, where, and when you’re browsing is something every paranoiac needs. If I could, I’d give Ghostery a Gearhead rating of 6 out of 5.

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