Tracking

Ajax was a really big deal six, seven, eight years ago. My second book was all about Ajax. I spoke about Ajax at conferences and gave workshops all about using Ajax and progressive enhancement.

During those workshops, I would often point out that Ajax had the potential to be abused terribly. Until the advent of Ajax, it was very clear to a user when data was being submitted to a server: you’d have to click a link or submit a form. As soon as you introduce asynchronous communication, it’s possible for the server to get information from the client even without a full-page refresh.

Imagine, for example, that you’re typing a message into a textarea. You might begin by typing, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf…” before calming down and thinking better of it. Before Ajax, there was no way that what you had typed could ever reach the server. But now, it’s entirely possible to send data via Ajax with every key press.

It was just a thought experiment. I wasn’t actually that worried that anyone would ever do something quite so creepy.

Then I came across this article by Jennifer Golbeck in Slate all about Facebook tracking what’s entered—but then erased—within its status update form:

Unfortunately, the code that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.

Initially I thought there must have been some mistake. I erronously called out Jen Golbeck when I found the PDF of a paper called The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook. The methodology behind the sample group used for that paper was much more old-fashioned than using Ajax:

First, participants took part in a weeklong diary study during which they used SMS messaging to report all instances of unshared content on Facebook (i.e., content intentionally self-censored). Participants also filled out nightly surveys to further describe unshared content and any shared content they decided to post on Facebook. Next, qualified participants took part in in-lab interviews.

But the Slate article was referencing a different paper that does indeed use Ajax to track instances of deleted text:

This research was conducted at Facebook by Facebook researchers. We collected self-censorship data from a random sample of approximately 5 million English-speaking Facebook users who lived in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of 17 days (July 6-22, 2012).

So what I initially thought was a case of alarmism—conflating something as simple as simple as a client-side character count with actual server-side monitoring—turned out to be a pretty accurate reading of the situation. I originally intended to write a scoffing post about Slate’s linkbaiting alarmism (and call it “The shocking truth behind the latest Facebook revelation”), but it turns out that my scoffing was misplaced.

That said, the article has been updated to reflect that the Ajax requests are only sending information about deleted characters—not the actual content. Still, as we learned very clearly from the NSA revelations, there’s not much practical difference between logging data and logging metadata.

The nerds among us may start firing up our developer tools to keep track of unexpected Ajax requests to the server. But what about everyone else?

This isn’t the first time that the power of JavaScript has been abused. Every browser now ships with an option to block pop-up windows. That’s because the ability to spawn new windows was so horribly misused. Maybe we’re going to see similar preference options to avoid firing Ajax requests on keypress.

It would be depressingly reductionist to conclude that any technology that can be abused will be abused. But as long as there are web developers out there who are willing to spawn pop-up windows or force persistent cookies or use Ajax to track deleted content, the depressingly reductionist conclusion looks like self-fulfilling prophecy.

Have you published a response to this? :