Tags: surveillance

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Monday, October 22nd, 2018

So We Got Tracked Anyway

Even using a strict cookie policy won’t help when Facebook and Google are using TLS to fingerprint users. Time to get more paranoid:

HTTPS session identifiers can be disabled in Mozilla products manually by setting ‘security.ssl.disablesessionidentifiers’ in about:config.

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

The costs and benefits of tracking scripts – business vs. user // Sebastian Greger

I am having a hard time seeing the business benefits weighing in more than the user cost (at least for those many organisations out there who rarely ever put that data to proper use). After all, keeping the costs low for the user should be in the core interest of the business as well.

Friday, September 14th, 2018

On using tracking scripts | justmarkup

Weighing up the pros and cons of adding tracking scripts to a website, from a business perspective and from a user perspective.

When looking at the costs versus the benefits it is hard to believe that almost every website is using tracking scripts.

The next time, you implement a tracking script it would be great if you could rethink it and ask yourself if it is really worth it.

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Private by Default

Feedbin has removed third-party iframes and JavaScript (oEmbed provides a nice alternative), as well as stripping out Google Analytics, and even web fonts that aren’t self-hosted. This is excellent!

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

Changing Our Approach to Anti-tracking - Future Releases

This is excellent news from Mozilla. Firefox is going to make it easier to block vampiric privacy-leeching and performance-draining third-party scripts and trackers.

In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

The Bullshit Web — Pixel Envy

There is a cumulative effect of bullshit; its depth and breadth is especially profound. In isolation, the few seconds that it takes to load some extra piece of surveillance JavaScript isn’t much. Neither is the time it takes for a user to hide an email subscription box, or pause an autoplaying video. But these actions compound on a single webpage, and then again across multiple websites, and those seemingly-small time increments become a swirling miasma of frustration and pain.

I agree completely. And AMP is not the answer:

Given the assumption that any additional bandwidth offered to web developers will immediately be consumed, there seems to be just one possible solution, which is to reduce the amount of bytes that are transmitted. For some bizarre reason, this hasn’t happened on the main web, because it somehow makes more sense to create an exact copy of every page on their site that is expressly designed for speed. Welcome back, WAP — except, for some reason, this mobile-centric copy is entirely dependent on yet more bytes. This is the dumbfoundingly dumb premise of AMP.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Laura Kalbag – Insecure

The web can be used to find common connections with folks you find interesting, and who don’t make you feel like so much of a weirdo. It’d be nice to be able to do this in a safe space that is not being surveilled.

Owning your own content, and publishing to a space you own can break through some of these barriers. Sharing your own weird scraps on your own site makes you easier to find by like-minded folks. If you’ve got no tracking on your site (no Google Analytics etc), you are harder to profile. People can’t come to harass you on your own site if you do not offer them the means to do so

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Fixing these webs - daverupert.com

I’m a fan of fast websites. Your website needs to be fast. Our collective excuses, hand-wringing, and inability to come to terms with the problem-set (There is too much script) and solutions (Use less script) of modern web development is getting tired.

I agree with every word of this.

Sadly, I think the one company with a browser that has marketshare dominance and could exert the kind of pressure required to stop ad tracking and surveillance capitalism is not incentivized to do so.

So the problem is approached from the other end. Blame is piled on authors for slow first-party code. We’re told to use certain mobile publishing frameworks that syndicate to proprietary CDNs to appease the gods of luck and fortune.

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Cory Doctorow: Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags – Locus Online

Facebook doesn’t have a mind-control problem, it has a corruption problem. Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

“I Was Devastated”: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets | Vanity Fair

Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?

It’s hard to believe that anyone—even Zuckerberg—wants the 1984 version. He didn’t found Facebook to manipulate elections; Jack Dorsey and the other Twitter founders didn’t intend to give Donald Trump a digital bullhorn. And this is what makes Berners-Lee believe that this battle over our digital future can be won. As public outrage grows over the centralization of the Web, and as enlarging numbers of coders join the effort to decentralize it, he has visions of the rest of us rising up and joining him.

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Name That Script! by Trent Walton

Trent is about to pop his AEA cherry and give a talk at An Event Apart in Boston. I’m going to attempt to liveblog this:

How many third-party scripts are loading on our web pages these days? How can we objectively measure the value of these (advertising, a/b testing, analytics, etc.) scripts—considering their impact on web performance, user experience, and business goals? We’ve learned to scrutinize content hierarchy, browser support, and page speed as part of the design and development process. Similarly, Trent will share recent experiences and explore ways to evaluate and discuss the inclusion of 3rd-party scripts.

Trent is going to speak about third-party scripts, which is funny, because a year ago, he never would’ve thought he’d be talking about this. But he realised he needed to pay more attention to:

any request made to an external URL.

Or how about this:

A resource included with a web page that the site owner doesn’t explicitly control.

When you include a third-party script, the third party can change the contents of that script.

Here are some uses:

  • advertising,
  • A/B testing,
  • analytics,
  • social media,
  • content delivery networks,
  • customer interaction,
  • comments,
  • tag managers,
  • fonts.

You get data from things like analytics and A/B testing. You get income from ads. You get content from CDNs.

But Trent has concerns. First and foremost, the user experience effects of poor performance. Also, there are the privacy implications.

Why does Trent—a designer—care about third party scripts? Well, over the years, the areas that Trent pays attention to has expanded. He’s progressed from image comps to frontend to performance to accessibility to design systems to the command line and now to third parties. But Trent has no impact on those third-party scripts. That’s very different to all those other areas.

Trent mostly builds prototypes. Those then get handed over for integration. Sometimes that means hooking it up to a CMS. Sometimes it means adding in analytics and ads. It gets really complex when you throw in third-party comments, payment systems, and A/B testing tools. Oftentimes, those third-party scripts can outweigh all the gains made beforehand. It happens with no discussion. And yet we spent half a meeting discussing a border radius value.

Delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough: I also need to consider the impact of third-party scripts.

Trent has spent the last few months learning about third parties so he can be better equiped to discuss them.

UX, performance and privacy impact

We feel the UX impact every day we browse the web (if we turn off our content blockers). The Food Network site has an intersitial asking you to disable your ad blocker. They promise they won’t spawn any pop-up windows. Trent turned his ad blocker off—the page was now 15 megabytes in size. And to top it off …he got a pop up.

Privacy can harder to perceive. We brush aside cookie notifications. What if the wording was “accept trackers” instead of “accept cookies”?

Remarketing is that experience when you’re browsing for a spatula and then every website you visit serves you ads for spatula. That might seem harmless but allowing access to our browsing history has serious privacy implications.

Web builders are on the front lines. It’s up to us to advocate for data protection and privacy like we do for web standards. Don’t wait to be told.

Categories of third parties

Ghostery categories third-party providers: advertising, comments, customer interaction, essential, site analytics, social media. You can dive into each layer and see the specific third-party services on the page you’re viewing.

Analyse and itemise third-party scripts

We have “view source” for learning web development. For third parties, you need some tool to export the data. HAR files (HTTP ARchive) are JSON files that you can create from most browsers’ network request panel in dev tools. But what do you do with a .har file? The site har.tech has plenty of resources for you. That’s where Trent found the Mac app, Charles. It can open .har files. Best of all, you can export to CSV so you can share spreadsheets of the data.

You can visualise third-party requests with Simon Hearne’s excellent Request Map. It’s quite impactful for delivering a visceral reaction in a meeting—so much more effective than just saying “hey, we have a lot of third parties.” Request Map can also export to CSV.

Know industry averages

Trent wanted to know what was “normal.” He decided to analyse HAR files for Alexa’s top 50 US websites. The result was a massive spreadsheet of third-party providers. There were 213 third-party domains (which is not even the same as the number of requests). There was an average of 22 unique third-party domains per site. The usual suspects were everywhere—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Adobe—but there were many others. You can find an alphabetical index on better.fyi/trackers. Often the lesser-known domains turn out to be owned by the bigger domains.

News sites and shopping sites have the most third-party scripts, unsurprisingly.

Understand benefits

Trent realised he needed to listen and understand why third-party scripts are being included. He found out what tag managers do. They’re funnels that allow you to cram even more third-party scripts onto your website. Trent worried that this was a Pandora’s box. The tag manager interface is easy to access and use. But he was told that it’s more like a way of organising your third-party scripts under one dashboard. But still, if you get too focused on the dashboard, you could lose focus of the impact on load times. So don’t blame the tool: it’s all about how it’s used.

Take action

Establish a centre of excellence. Put standards in place—in a cross-discipline way—to define how third-party scripts are evaluated. For example:

  1. Determine the value to the business.
  2. Avoid redundant scripts and services.
  3. Fit within the established performance budget.
  4. Comply with the organistional privacy policy.

Document those decisions, maybe even in your design system.

Also, include third-party scripts within your prototypes to get a more accurate feel for the performance implications.

On a live site, you can regularly audit third-party scripts on a regular basis. Check to see if any are redundant or if they’re exceeding the performance budget. You can monitor performance with tools like Calibre and Speed Curve to cover the time in between audits.

Make your case

Do competitive analysis. Look at other sites in your sector. It’s a compelling way to make a case for change. WPO Stats is very handy for anecdata.

You can gather comparative data with Web Page Test: you can run a full test, and you can run a test with certain third parties blocked. Use the results to kick off a discussion about the impact of those third parties.

Talk it out

Work to maintain an ongoing discussion with the entire team. As Tim Kadlec says:

Everything should have a value, because everything has a cost.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Consently - Privacy-friendly and GDPR compliant tracking

This looks very useful: a script that will allow visitors to tailor which tracking scripts they want to allow. Seems like a win-win to me: useful for developers, and useful for end users. A safe and sensible approach to GDPR.

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Identifying, Auditing, and Discussing Third Parties – CSS Wizardry

Harry describes the process he uses for auditing the effects of third-party scripts. He uses the excellent Request Map which was mentioned multiple times at the Delta V conference.

The focus here is on performance, but these tools are equally useful for shining a light on just how bad the situation is with online surveillance and tracking.

Pi-hole®: A black hole for Internet advertisements

This looks like a terrific use of a Raspberry Pi—blocking adtech surveillance at the network level.

Wouldn’t it be great if the clichéd going-home-for-Christmas/Thanksgiving to fix the printer/wifi included setting up one of these?

There’s an article about Pi-hole in Business Week where the creators offer some advice for those who equate any kind of online advertising with ubiquitous surveillance:

For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. There’s nothing wrong with pitching people stuff they might enjoy, the team says. It’s just the constant, ever-intensifying surveillance that needs to stop.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Alternative analytics

Contrary to the current consensual hallucination, there are alternatives to Google Analytics.

I haven’t tried Open Web Analytics. It looks a bit geeky, but the nice thing about it is that you can set it up to work with JavaScript or PHP (sort of like Mint, which I miss).

Also on the geeky end, there’s GoAccess which provides an interface onto your server logs. You can view the data in a browser or on the command line. I gave this a go on adactio.com and it all worked just fine.

Matomo was previously called Piwik, and it’s the closest to Google Analytics. Chris Ruppel wrote about using it as a drop-in replacement. I gave it a go on adactio.com and it did indeed collect analytics very nicely …but then I deleted it, because it still felt creepy to have any kind of analytics script at all (neither Huffduffer or The Session have any analytics tracking either).

Fathom isn’t out yet, but it looks interesting:

It will track users on a website, the key actions they are taking, and give you a non-nerdy breakdown of their journey. It’ll do so with user-centric rights and privacy, and without selling, sharing or giving away the data you collect.

I don’t think any of these alternatives offer quite the same ease-of-use that you’d get from Google Analytics. But I also don’t think that should be your highest priority. There’s a fundamental difference between doing your own analytics (self-hosted), and outsourcing the job to Google who can then track your site’s visitors across domains.

I was hoping that GDPR would put the squeeze on third-party tracking, but it looks like Google have found a way out. By declaring themselves a data controller (but not a data processor), they pass can pass the buck to the data processors to obtain consent.

If you have Google Analytics on your site, that’s you, that is.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Facebook Is Tracking Me Even Though I’m Not on Facebook | American Civil Liberties Union

But while I’ve never “opted in” to Facebook or any of the other big social networks, Facebook still has a detailed profile that can be used to target me. I’ve never consented to having Facebook collect my data, which can be used to draw very detailed inferences about my life, my habits, and my relationships. As we aim to take Facebook to task for its breach of user trust, we need to think about what its capabilities imply for society overall. After all, if you do #deleteFacebook, you’ll find yourself in my shoes: non-consenting, but still subject to Facebook’s globe-spanning surveillance and targeting network.

Facebook’s “shadow profiles” are truly egregious …and if you include social sharing buttons on a website, you’re contributing to the data harvest.

If you administer a website and you include a “Like” button on every page, you’re helping Facebook to build profiles of your visitors, even those who have opted out of the social network.

If you are responsible for running a website, try browsing it with a third-party-blocking extension turned on. Think about how much information you’re requiring your users to send to third parties as a condition for using your site. If you care about being a good steward of your visitors’ data, you can re-design your website to reduce this kind of leakage.

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Doc Searls Weblog · Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing

What will happen when the Times, the New Yorker and other pubs own up to the simple fact that they are just as guilty as Facebook of leaking its readers’ data to other parties, for—in many if not most cases—God knows what purposes besides “interest-based” advertising? And what happens when the EU comes down on them too? It’s game-on after 25 May, when the EU can start fining violators of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Key fact: the GDPR protects the data blood of EU citizens wherever they risk having it sucked in the digital world.

#davewentandroid - daverupert.com

Yeah. Fuck this. That’s creepy. Technically I opted into this feature because Google Maps asked “Google Maps would like to know your location, YES or NO?” Of course my answer was “YES” because, hey, it’s a fucking map. I didn’t realize I consented to having my information and location history stored indefinitely on Google’s servers.

I began all the work of disabling this “feature” but it seemed like a fruitless task. Also worth noting, Google Maps for iOS keeps Location History as well.

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Facebook Container Extension: Take control of how you’re being tracked | The Firefox Frontier

A Firefox plugin that ring-fences all Facebook activity to the facebook.com domain. Once you close that tab, this extension takes care of garbage collection, ensuring that Facebook tracking scripts don’t leak into any other browsing activities.

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Facebook and the end of the world

I’d love to see some change, and some introspection. A culture of first, do no harm. A recognition that there are huge dangers if you just do what’s possible, or build a macho “fail fast” culture that promotes endangerment. It’s about building teams that know they’ll make mistakes but also recognize the difference between great businesses opportunities and gigantic, universe-sized fuck ups.