Gaze Upon My Browser Extensions and Despair

Illustration for article titled Gaze Upon My Browser Extensions and Despair
Image: Gizmodo/Shoshana Wodinsky

They’re not what any of us would call “intimate,” but you can really tell a lot about a person from a quick glance at the browser extensions they use. Is your boyfriend’s browser decorated with favicons from Evernote, Trello, and literally nothing else? He’s either a type-A perfectionist or zen to a fault. Is your aunt’s browser bucking under extensions for coupons, promo codes, and cashback deals? Safe to say she’s obsessively thrifty.

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I wish I could tell you the impression my own menagerie gives off, but everyone that’s seen them has been too busy wordlessly screaming to give me an answer. Earlier this week, I inadvertently put my extensions on full display when I jokingly tweeted out a screenshot of the roughly 80 tabs I had open at the time (it was for a story, I swear). But a lot of folks were more concerned with the two dozen extensions that they saw running in my browser window.

I’ll fully own up to being a bit of a tab hoarder, but this was the first time anyone came after my little widgets. Reporting on the tech privacy space for this long taught me that, sure, it was smart to be selective with the extensions I used, since they’ve historically done a shitty job at protecting the data they gorge from our browsing habits. But 24 (okay, actually 28) wasn’t that many. Right?

Of course, it was.

I asked a few Gizmodo staffers how many extensions they’d downloaded, the answer could always be rounded to “a handful”—somewhere between two and 10, not 30.

When it’s your job to document the ups and downs of the ad-funded economy—the companies that monopolize it, the feds that exploit it, and the personal data that get caught in the middle—trusting anything becomes hard to do. The pipeline that sends your details to be swapped for someone else’s dollars is arguably engineered to be impossible to understand, while earning a collective $140 billion in just the past year. The people who operate those pipelines know how arcane this is, which is why they lie. Adtech vendors lie to news sites about how much they can earn off their ads. Major platforms lie to advertisers about the money they spend on ads. Even the straight-shooters in the space will point out that their entire livelihood depends on some degree of magical thinking.

The good news is that code doesn’t lie, and code is also what powers the soupy machinations that underlie this industry. The bad news is that—wait for it—I can’t code. You caught me. Or more accurately, I can’t write code. I can read it just fine, if I have some sort of tool that can reach into the guts of an ad or website and bring it up to the surface. Maybe that tool could plug into my browser for safekeeping, and maybe different tools could sniff out specific pieces of data that are being turned to profit at any given time.

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You sickos wanted to see the full list of what’s haunting my browser, so here it is—along with links to download each extension in my problematic fave of a browser, Google Chrome. While the names on this list have passed my own personal sniff test, your standards might be (and probably are) higher. Do your research before downloading. And if you end up with a browser so cluttered that your coworkers get heart palpitations by looking at it, just know the digital economy is infinitely uglier.

1. Ad Library Pro

Gives a bit more insight into the ads you see across Facebook’s sprawling ad library like the landing pages those ads end up on, the countries and languages they tend to target the most, and whether their ads link to any apps outside of Facebook.

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2. Big Tech Detective

A fun extension that lets you see when a website is sharing data with Amazon, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft, and then see how frustrating and broken those sites become if you try to tamper with them. Full transparency: Gizmodo reporter Dhruv Mehrotra is one of the key people who built this tool, and he’s also the technologist that worked out the tech for our Goodbye Big Five project, which inspired the extension.

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3. Beeline Reader

If you’re struggling to focus on... literally anything due to a bad case of pandemic-induced smooth brain, I can’t recommend this enough. The tool’s had a cult following in education circles for years, specifically for students struggling with attention issues or dyslexia. Yes, every story you read will suddenly be plastered with day-glo red and blue, and yes, it’s only free for two weeks. But right now, it’s the only thing that’s keeping my brain semi-wrinkly.

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4 and 5. BidFilter / Bidscape

Both of these tools are dedicated to header bidding, the ad-industry term describing how many publishers put their ad space (and your data) on the ad exchange market, and advertisers put down bids to reach that particular combo of website and person sitting in front of said website. By opening either of these on any ad-supported website, you can get a peek at how many middlemen are bidding on your eyeballs, and an estimate on how much they’re willing to spend to reach you.

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Bidscape, for example, adds a green ticker to the top right corner of any site you might be browsing so you can watch the dollars pour in as you surf across a site—but as an FYI, that dollar value is your page value multiplied by 1,000%. Realistically, advertisers are paying a fraction of a fraction of a cent to reach you while you’re reading these words right now. While typing this out, I paid a visit to the Gizmodo homepage that was worth a whopping $0.00805. If staring into the cold, black heart of digital monetization doesn’t ick you out, have fun surfing!

6. BuiltWith

It shows you what tech sites are... built with.

7. Chaff

A good tool for people that want to add random data on top of their own data so the companies trying to profit from that data won’t be able to micro-target you (because of all the data).

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8. Chrome Extension Source Viewer

A Chrome extension that takes apart Chrome extensions. I know you’re thinking it.

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9. ClearURLs

Cuts out those super-gross-looking pieces of URL code that some companies use to track you from page to page, leaving your addresses squeaky clean.

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10. Click&Clean

A supremely simple tool that lets you nuke any sort of trace you might have on your browser.

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11. Distill

Monitors web pages for any changes. Also useful for catching companies sneaking updates on their site while they think nobody’s watching.

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12. Earth View

Like Earther, but with less bad news.

13. Finitimus

Tells you when a site had its first birthday.

14, 15, 16. Google Dictionary / Google Translate / Power Thesaurus

For writing words good.

17. Keywords Everywhere

Follows you anytime you make a search on a handful of major platforms to let you know how popular searches for, say, Crocs (or any other phrase) have been on that platform over time. It also lets you know popular keywords related to the one you just searched, like, I don’t know, “justin bieber crocs 2021,” a collaboration that I wish I could unsee.

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18. LocalStorage Manager

Lets you see what data you might have lurking in the Local and Session Storage pockets in your browser.

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19. My Ad Finder

Ever wonder what your Facebook feed would look like if it was only ads? Do you hate the last scraps of anything good on that site? Want to feel a straight shot of capitalism to your brain every time you try logging onto Facebook dot com? You’re in luck—what was created to be a pretty effective marketing tool also happens to be a waking fever dream for literally anyone else.

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20. OneTab

A great tool that turns tab hoarding into tab hoarding, but in a single folder.

21. PixelBlock

A very handy tool that kills email tracking pixels before you open them.

22. Robots Exclusion Checker

A “Robots.txt” page is a tool that companies often use to bury parts of their site from Google search, without actually taking those pages down. It’s an easy way for hospitals to hide their pricing data from people that desperately need it, for online tax services to hide access to their free services, and for skincare brands to keep news of a product recall from the public. In other words, they’re not great! At least you can use this extension to find those pages pretty easily.

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23. RocketReach

For finding email addresses from people who won’t answer your texts.

24. Pocket

Put that longread in your Pocket and pretend you’ll read it later.

25. SEO Search Simulator

If you ever wondered what kind of ads people in Algeria or Belarus were seeing while they were looking for Crocs on Google Search, good news!

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26. Google Tag Assistant

Quickly dredges up a site’s Google analytics tags or identifiers (if they have one). Also handy for tracking who might be running that site!

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27. Tineye

Like Google search, but only pictures.

28. Wayback Machine

When you want to capture a snapshot of a website at a certain point in time, or see how a page might have changed. Also useful if you’re nostalgic for Luigi boards.

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29. One Click Extensions Manager

For whenever you’re inevitably heckled for downloading all this nerdy shit onto your browser.

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I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

DISCUSSION

JoshTheBat

This is Internet Explorer toolbars all over again.