Well, this is one of the more bizarre internet stunts we’ve seen. In an effort to show you how advertisers snoop on your surfing activity, Mozilla is offering you the chance to pretend that you’re someone else.
It’s a website that lets you choose from four different personality profiles, and then automatically surfs for the kinds of websites that person might visit. The idea is to let these sites fill your browser with cookies, and watch as advertisers start showing you commercials for things you have no interest in buying.
Why? According to Mozilla, it’s to “bring that out-of-sight tracking front and center” and highlight to users of the internet why they might want to block third-party tracking cookies. In other words, it’s using it as a conversation-sparker to get people interested in the Enhanced Tracking Protection that it introduced in version 67.0.1 of its Quantum browser earlier this month.
Mozilla told us:
We wanted to illustrate how widespread tracking is and let people step into another character’s advertising profile for a while to see how quickly shifts in their online behaviour are being recorded and acted upon by marketers and companies on the web.
Those who want to test out the service can choose from the following four personality types:
Hypebeast: a user obsessed with streetwear, sneakers, and the latest music.
Filthy Rich: a monied-up surfer looking for luxury brands, fancy cars, and exclusive clubs.
Doomsday prepper: a paranoid conspiracy theorist looking for supplies, evaluating bunkers, and accessing the latest crackpot stories.
Influencer: A vapid online approval minder, searching for skincare routines, holistic remedies, astrology and meditation apps (wait – don’t this lot already make entire careers out of pretending to be someone they’re not?)
If you select one of the profiles and press ‘Track THIS’, it opens 100 tabs in your browser, inviting a torrent of cookies that persuade advertisers you fit one of these profiles. They’ll then start showing you ads for mylar blanks and flashlights, or selfie sticks and cherry lipgloss, or whatever.
Mozilla does a lot of useful privacy-focused stuff online, but this seems like a poorly considered publicity stunt. For one thing, opening up 100 tabs in your browser will rapidly chew through your CPU power and memory, and possibly make lesser-powered machines throw a wobbly. The company even admits this:
Before you try Track THIS, get your tabs in order and save your work. Maybe even open up a new window or browser. Track THIS will open A LOT of tabs. 100 tabs is a lot.
Isn’t borking a surveillance victim’s machine in the interests of demonstrating privacy issues a little counter-productive?
The other worry is that Track THIS might open a website that has been attacked by hackers or malvertisers, thus infecting your machine. Even if Mozilla vets the URLs at the outset, isn’t there a danger that they might be compromised later?
In terms of selecting the URLs, we chose reputable websites with a large audience. The possible security risks associated with this activation are no greater than any typical encounter a user would have with the sites that are associated with each of the four profiles.
We tried Track THIS out in a virtual machine with two cores and 8Gb of memory allocated. We pretended to be a doomsday prepper. Firefox’s own browser refuses to open 100 tabs (its security features allow only 20 tabs at a time), but after opening Track THIS in a new installation of Opera and allowing pop-ups, it did indeed open 100 sites.
Sites opened included various Amazon searches for prepper gear, and articles on everything from wildfires through to how doomsday preppers are represented in the movies. It sourced content from a range of sites including the New York Intelligencer, the History channel, and apartmentprepper.com.
We had no ad blocking or anti-tracking settings turned on in Opera, and we can’t say that the ads reflected our chosen personality much. Rolling Stone showed us ads for Quickbooks. Another site showed us ads for ATV tyres and wellness coaching. Your mileage may vary.
This is an interesting publicity stunt, but we can’t help feeling that the sorts of people this is going to attract are those who already understand the implications of online tracking.