Tags: privacy

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Monday, November 29th, 2021

Google, Facebook hiding behind skirts of small business

While the dream of “personalized” ads has turned out to be mostly a nightmare, adtech has built some of the wealthiest companies in the world based on tracking us. It’s no surprise to me that as Members of the European Parliament contemplate tackling these many harms, Big Tech is throwing millions of Euros behind a “necessary evil” PR defense for its business model.

But tracking is an unnecessary evil.

Yes! This!

Even in today’s tracking-obsessed digital ecosystem it’s perfectly possible to target ads successfully without placing people under surveillance. In fact right now, some of the most effective and highly valued online advertising is contextual — based on search terms, other non-tracking based data, and the context of websites rather than intrusive, dangerous surveillance.

Let’s be clear. Advertising is essential for small and medium size businesses, but tracking is not.

Rather than creating advertising that is more relevant, more timely and more likable we are creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided.

I promise you, the minute tracking is outlawed, Facebook, Google and the rest of the adtech giants will claim that their new targeting mechanisms (whatever they turn out to be) are superior to tracking.

UK ICO: surveillance advertising is dead

Behavioral ads are only more profitable than context ads if all the costs of surveillance – the emotional burden of being watched; the risk of breach, identity-theft and fraud; the potential for government seizure of surveillance data – is pushed onto internet users. If companies have to bear those costs, behavioral ads are a total failure, because no one in the history of the human race would actually grant consent to all the things that gets done with our data.

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021

Email Tracking and Paperless Banking – Dan Q

Even if you can somehow justify using tracking technologies (which don’t work reliably) to make general, statistical decisions (“fewer people open our emails when the subject contains the word ‘overdraft’!”), you can’t make individual decisions based on them. That’s just wrong.

On User Tracking and Industry Standards on Privacy | CSS-Tricks

Prompted by my post on tracking, Chris does some soul searching about his own use of tracking.

I’m interested not just in the ethical concerns and my long-time complacency with industry norms, but also as someone who very literally sells advertising.

He brings up the point that advertisers expect to know how many people opened a particular email and how many people clicked on a particular link. I’m sure that’s right, but it’s also beside the point: what matters is how the receiver of the email feels about having that information tracked. If they haven’t given you permission to do it, you can’t just assume they’re okay with it.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2021

Tracking

I’ve been reading the excellent Design For Safety by Eva PenzeyMoog. There was a line that really stood out to me:

The idea that it’s alright to do whatever unethical thing is currently the industry norm is widespread in tech, and dangerous.

It stood out to me because I had been thinking about certain practices that are widespread, accepted, and yet strike me as deeply problematic. These practices involve tracking users.

The first problem is that even the terminology I’m using would be rejected. When you track users on your website, it’s called analytics. Or maybe it’s stats. If you track users on a large enough scale, I guess you get to just call it data.

Those words—“analytics”, “stats”, and “data”—are often used when the more accurate word would be “tracking.”

Or to put it another way; analytics, stats, data, numbers …these are all outputs. But what produced these outputs? Tracking.

Here’s a concrete example: email newsletters.

Do you have numbers on how many people opened a particular newsletter? Do you have numbers on how many people clicked a particular link?

You can call it data, or stats, or analytics, but make no mistake, that’s tracking.

Follow-on question: do you honestly think that everyone who opens a newsletter or clicks on a link in a newsletter has given their informed constent to be tracked by you?

You may well answer that this is a widespread—nay, universal—practice. Well yes, but a) that’s not what I asked, and b) see the above quote from Design For Safety.

You could quite correctly point out that this tracking is out of your hands. Your newsletter provider—probably Mailchimp—does this by default. So if the tracking is happening anyway, why not take a look at those numbers?

But that’s like saying it’s okay to eat battery-farmed chicken as long as you’re not breeding the chickens yourself.

When I try to argue against this kind of tracking from an ethical standpoint, I get a frosty reception. I might have better luck battling numbers with numbers. Increasing numbers of users are taking steps to prevent tracking. I had a plug-in installed in my mail client—Apple Mail—to prevent tracking. Now I don’t even need the plug-in. Apple have built it into the app. That should tell you something. It reminds me of when browsers had to introduce pop-up blocking.

If the outputs generated by tracking turn out to be inaccurate, then shouldn’t they lose their status?

But that line of reasoning shouldn’t even by necessary. We shouldn’t stop tracking users because it’s inaccurate. We should stop stop tracking users because it’s wrong.

Tuesday, November 9th, 2021

Tough questions at Chrome Dev Summit’s AMA session • The Register

Forgive me for linking to The Rag, but for completeness’s sake, it would be remiss of me not to point out more coverage of “that” question I asked:

It was to the company’s credit that it chose to take the question posed by Clearleft’s Jeremy Keith, well known in the web standards community and who was briefly on the advisory committee for AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), before resigning saying that “it has become clear to me that AMP remains a Google product.” AMP has been in the news of late with a lawsuit alleging Google deliberately throttled ad load times to promote it, and Keith asked: “Given the court proceedings against AMP, why should anyone trust FLOC or any other Google initiatives ostensibly focused on privacy?”

Sunday, November 7th, 2021

AMP Has Irreparably Damaged Publishers’ Trust in Google-led Initiatives – WP Tavern

An article by Sarah Gooding, prompted by the question I asked at Chrome Dev Summit:

Jeremy Keith’s question referencing the AMP allegations in the recently unredacted antitrust complaint against Google was extremely unlikely to receive an adequate response from the Chrome Leadership team, but the mere act of asking is a public reminder of the trust Google has willfully eroded in pushing AMP on publishers.

Thursday, November 4th, 2021

Writing on web.dev

Chrome Dev Summit kicked off yesterday. The opening keynote had its usual share of announcements.

There was quite a bit of talk about privacy, which sounds good in theory, but then we were told that Google would be partnering with “industry stakeholders.” That’s probably code for the kind of ad-tech sharks that have been making a concerted effort to infest W3C groups. Beware.

But once Una was on-screen, the topics shifted to the kind of design and development updates that don’t have sinister overtones.

My favourite moment was when Una said:

We’re also partnering with Jeremy Keith of Clearleft to launch Learn Responsive Design on web.dev. This is a free online course with everything you need to know about designing for the new responsive web of today.

This is what’s been keeping me busy for the past few months (and for the next month or so too). I’ve been writing fifteen pieces—or “modules”—on modern responsive web design. One third of them are available now at web.dev/learn/design:

  1. Introduction
  2. Media queries
  3. Internationalization
  4. Macro layouts
  5. Micro layouts

The rest are on their way: typography, responsive images, theming, UI patterns, and more.

I’ve been enjoying this process. It’s hard work that requires me to dive deep into the nitty-gritty details of lots of different techniques and technologies, but that can be quite rewarding. As is often said, if you truly want to understand something, teach it.

Oh, and I made one more appearance at the Chrome Dev Summit. During the “Ask Me Anything” section, quizmaster Una asked the panelists a question from me:

Given the court proceedings against AMP, why should anyone trust FLOC or any other Google initiatives ostensibly focused on privacy?

(Thanks to Jake for helping craft the question into a form that could make it past the legal department but still retain its spiciness.)

The question got a response. I wouldn’t say it got an answer. My verdict remains:

I’m not sure that Google Chrome can be considered a user agent.

The fundamental issue is that you’ve got a single company that’s the market leader in web search, the market leader in web advertising, and the market leader in web browsers. I honestly believe all three would function better—and more honestly—if they were separate entities.

Monopolies aren’t just damaging for customers. They’re damaging for the monopoly too. I’d love to see Google Chrome compete on being a great web browser without having to also balance the needs of surveillance-based advertising.

Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

Locus. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan documents the sad plague of app-install banners on the web.

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Meet the Self-Hosters, Taking Back the Internet One Server at a Time

Taking the indie web to the next level—self-hosting on your own hardware.

Tired of Big Tech monopolies, a community of hobbyists is taking their digital lives off the cloud and onto DIY hardware that they control.

Monday, August 30th, 2021

My love-hate affair with technology | Read the Tea Leaves

A very open and honest post by Nolan on trying to live with technology without sacrificing privacy.

Monday, May 24th, 2021

Principles of User Privacy (PUP)

This looks like an excellent proposal for agreement around discussing privacy on the web.

The section on user agents resonates with what I wrote recently about not considering Google Chrome a user agent any more:

Its fiduciary duties include:

  • Duty of Protection
  • Duty of Discretion
  • Duty of Honesty
  • Duty of Loyalty

Doc Searls Weblog · How the cookie poisoned the Web

Lou’s idea was just for a server to remember the last state of a browser’s interaction with it. But that one move—a server putting a cookie inside every visiting browser—crossed a privacy threshold: a personal boundary that should have been clear from the start but was not.

Once that boundary was crossed, and the number and variety of cookies increased, a snowball started rolling, and whatever chance we had to protect our privacy behind that boundary, was lost.

The Doctor is incensed.

At this stage of the Web’s moral devolution, it is nearly impossible to think outside the cookie-based fecosystem.

Saturday, May 22nd, 2021

Some long-winded thoughts on privacy policies and consent popups — Piper Haywood

A deep dive into GDPR.

Got Google Analytics on your site? You should probably read this.

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

The cage

I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.

But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.

This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”

I saw the same tweet. It resonated with me. I had responded with a link to a post I wrote a while back called Get safe. That post made two points:

  1. GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
  2. It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.

But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:

It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.

He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:

Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?

When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.

Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:

“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.

But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.

What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.

The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.

And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.

Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.

Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?

It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

Signal >> Blog >> The Instagram ads Facebook won’t show you

The way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into comprehensible real world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible.

You can try to use Facebook’s own tools to make the invisible visible but that kind of transparency isn’t allowed.

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

A quick look at privacy-focused analytics for small sites

A round-up of alternatives to Google Analytics.

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

Get the FLoC out

I’ve always liked the way that web browsers are called “user agents” in the world of web standards. It’s such a succinct summation of what browsers are for, or more accurately who browsers are for. Users.

The term makes sense when you consider that the internet is for end users. That’s not to be taken for granted. This assertion is now enshrined in the Internet Engineering Task Force’s RFC 8890—like Magna Carta for the network age. It’s also a great example of prioritisation in a design principle:

When there is a conflict between the interests of end users of the Internet and other parties, IETF decisions should favor end users.

So when a web browser—ostensibly an agent for the user—prioritises user-hostile third parties, we get upset.

Google Chrome—ostensibly an agent for the user—is running an origin trial for Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). This is not a technology that serves the end user. It is a technology that serves third parties who want to target end users. The most common use case is behavioural advertising, but targetting could be applied for more nefarious purposes.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an explainer last month: Google Is Testing Its Controversial New Ad Targeting Tech in Millions of Browsers. Here’s What We Know.

Let’s back up a minute and look at why this is happening. End users are routinely targeted today (for behavioural advertising and other use cases) through third-party cookies. Some user agents like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox are stamping down on this, disabling third party cookies by default.

Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Google’s Chrome browser will also disable third-party cookies at some time in the future (they’re waiting to shut that barn door until the fire is good’n’raging). But Google isn’t just in the browser business. Google is also in the ad tech business. So they still want to advertisers to be able to target end users.

Yes, this is quite the cognitive dissonance: one part of the business is building a user agent while a different part of the company is working on ways of tracking end users. It’s almost as if one company shouldn’t simultaneously be the market leader in three separate industries: search, advertising, and web browsing. (Seriously though, I honestly think Google’s search engine would get better if it were split off from the parent company, and I think that Google’s web browser would also get better if it were a separate enterprise.)

Anyway, one possible way of tracking users without technically tracking individual users is to assign them to buckets, or cohorts of interest based on their browsing habits. Does that make you feel safer? Me neither.

That’s what Google is testing with the origin trial of FLoC.

If you, as an end user, don’t wish to be experimented on like this, there are a few things you can do:

  • Don’t use Chrome. No other web browser is participating in this experiment. I recommend Firefox.
  • If you want to continue to use Chrome, install the Duck Duck Go Chrome extension.
  • Alternatively, if you manually disable third-party cookies, your Chrome browser won’t be included in the experiment.
  • Or you could move to Europe. The origin trial won’t be enabled for users in the European Union, which is coincidentally where GDPR applies.

That last decision is interesting. On the one hand, the origin trial is supposed to be on a small scale, hence the lack of European countries. On the other hand, the origin trial is “opt out” instead of “opt in” so that they can gather a big enough data set. Weird.

The plan is that if and when FLoC launches, websites would have to opt in to it. And when I say “plan”, I meanbest guess.”

I, for one, am filled with confidence that Google would never pull a bait-and-switch with their technologies.

In the meantime, if you’re a website owner, you have to opt your website out of the origin trial. You can do this by sending a server header. A meta element won’t do the trick, I’m afraid.

I’ve done it for my sites, which are served using Apache. I’ve got this in my .conf file:

<IfModule mod_headers.c>
Header always set Permissions-Policy "interest-cohort=()"
</IfModule>

If you don’t have access to your server, tough luck. But if your site runs on Wordpress, there’s a proposal to opt out of FLoC by default.

Interestingly, none of the Chrome devs that I follow are saying anything about FLoC. They’re usually quite chatty about proposals for potential standards, but I suspect that this one might be embarrassing for them. It was a similar situation with AMP. In that case, Google abused its monopoly position in search to blackmail publishers into using Google’s format. Now Google’s monopoly in advertising is compromising the integrity of its browser. In both cases, it makes it hard for Chrome devs claiming to have the web’s best interests at heart.

But one of the advantages of having a huge share of the browser market is that Chrome can just plough ahead and unilaterily implement whatever it wants even if there’s no consensus from other browser makers. So that’s what Google is doing with FLoC. But their justification for doing this doesn’t really work unless other browsers play along.

Here’s Google’s logic:

  1. Third-party cookies are on their way out so advertisers will no longer be able to use that technology to target users.
  2. If we don’t provide an alternative, advertisers and other third parties will use fingerprinting, which we all agree is very bad.
  3. So let’s implement Federated Learning of Cohorts so that advertisers won’t use fingerprinting.

The problem is with step three. The theory is that if FLoC gives third parties what they need, then they won’t reach for fingerprinting. Even if there were any validity to that hypothesis, the only chance it has of working is if every browser joins in with FLoC. Otherwise ad tech companies are leaving money on the table. Can you seriously imagine third parties deciding that they just won’t target iPhone or iPad users any more? Remember that Safari is the only real browser on iOS so unless FLoC is implemented by Apple, third parties can’t reach those people …unless those third parties use fingerprinting instead.

Google have set up a situation where it looks like FLoC is going head-to-head with fingerprinting. But if FLoC becomes a reality, it won’t be instead of fingerprinting, it will be in addition to fingerprinting.

Google is quite right to point out that fingerprinting is A Very Bad Thing. But their concerns about fingerprinting sound very hollow when you see that Chrome is pushing ahead and implementing a raft of browser APIs that other browser makers quite rightly point out enable more fingerprinting: Battery Status, Proximity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor and so on.

When it comes to those APIs, the message from Google is that fingerprinting is a solveable problem.

But when it comes to third party tracking, the message from Google is that fingerprinting is inevitable and so we must provide an alternative.

Which one is it?

Google’s flimsy logic for why FLoC is supposedly good for end users just doesn’t hold up. If they were honest and said that it’s to maintain the status quo of the ad tech industry, it would make much more sense.

The flaw in Google’s reasoning is the fundamental idea that tracking is necessary for advertising. That’s simply not true. Sacrificing user privacy is fundamental to behavioural advertising …but behavioural advertising is not the only kind of advertising. It isn’t even a very good kind of advertising.

Marko Saric sums it up:

FLoC seems to be Google’s way of saving a dying business. They are trying to keep targeted ads going by making them more “privacy-friendly” and “anonymous”. But behavioral profiling and targeted advertisement is not compatible with a privacy-respecting web.

What’s striking is that the very monopolies that make Google and Facebook the leaders in behavioural advertising would also make them the leaders in contextual advertising. Almost everyone uses Google’s search engine. Almost everyone uses Facebook’s social network. An advertising model based on what you’re currently looking at would keep Google and Facebook in their dominant positions.

Google made their first many billions exclusively on contextual advertising. Google now prefers to push the message that behavioral advertising based on personal data collection is superior but there is simply no trustworthy evidence to that.

I sincerely hope that Chrome will align with Safari, Firefox, Vivaldi, Brave, Edge and every other web browser. Everyone already agrees that fingerprinting is the real enemy. Imagine the combined brainpower that could be brought to bear on that problem if all browsers made user privacy a priority.

Until that day, I’m not sure that Google Chrome can be considered a user agent.

Monday, April 5th, 2021

Google Is Testing Its Controversial New Ad Targeting Tech in Millions of Browsers. Here’s What We Know. | Electronic Frontier Foundation

Following on from the piece they ran called Google’s FLoC Is a Terrible Idea, the EFF now have the details of the origin trial and it’s even worse than what was originally planned.

I strongly encourage you to use a privacy-preserving browser like Firefox or Safari.