Tag Archives: privacy

In praise of friction

Install Privacy Badger. It’s a plug-in from the EFF that blocks the nasty stuff that web site owners silently insert into your browser – tracking code, cookies and code from third-parties. It works in Firefox and Chrome (but only on a computer, not on your mobile). Now enjoy the genuinely freaky experience of wandering the web unrecognised. Not anonymous, just not known. Like a character in a William Gibson novel who’s had the implant ripped out. This is what it’s like not to be tracked (disclaimer: this only works for web sites. Your government is still tracking you).

The immediate effect is more friction. Gone: the convenience of breezing around the web like you’re a VIP. Barriers pop up everywhere. But, you’ll realise, the experience of showing up at one of your regular web sites and seeing that bloody cookies warning again and being asked to log in from scratch again is, seriously, charming. You’re logging in again because the web site you’re visiting, which is your absolute favourite, has no idea who you are. Friction is good.

Likewise, seeing the little Privacy Badger icon light up, telling you that 10, 20, 30 (sometimes 40 or 50) tracking elements on the page have been blocked, is the simplest possible reminder of the sheer density of the thicket of tracking code you’re entangled in now.

And the fact that some pages won’t display at all, or are just broken, because Privacy Badger won’t allow them to load code from another domain, is also – seriously – sort of bracing. As you go through the list of blocked elements looking for the one that’s stopping the page from displaying, you’ll learn more about how third-party code makes the modern web work. Consciousness raised.

Incidentally, it’s going to take you a while to notice, but you’re not seeing the usual chaff of Facebook, Twitter and Google gadgets either. They’re blocked.

Is this a bit paranoid? A bit weird? Yes. But it’s also profoundly sane. Blocking all this stuff, this invasive cruft, this miserable, intrusive web junk is a good thing not because it makes it harder for big media to make a living. It’s a good thing because it switches things around and puts you back in charge. It’s now your decision whether you activate all those trackers again. If you’re feeling big about it – magnanimous – you can switch Privacy Badger off all together for sites you trust. But that’s a decision you made, not a default behaviour (I’m a grown-up and I want great sites to survive. I’ve done this for lots of sites).

Canny web site owners are responding to users who block their tracking code by popping messages saying things like: “we notice you’re running an ad blocker. Would you be a nice person and switch it off?” Some won’t allow you in at all if you’re running an ad blocker. And this is cool. It’s the right way round. It makes your contract with the publisher explicit. Everything’s in the open (and Privacy Badger will still show you a list of tracking code, even for sites you’re not blocking, so you’re in the know). There are also legit ways for publishers to stop Privacy Badger blocking their sites.

Publishers will tell you that friction = death for sites on slim margins and with sharp-elbowed competition. They’ll tell you they couldn’t possibly make the tracking trade-off explicit. And they’ll tell you it’s all already in their terms of use. And my answer to that, of course, is going to be something like: “there’s your problem.”

Hacks hack

Extraordinary movement in the phone hacking case today – and presumably only the beginning of a torrent of admissions and concessions. This is good. But there’s something about the indignation of the celebs (and near-celebs and non-celebs) caught up in the phone hacking mess – those whose names appeared on those long lists of ‘targets’ and whose personal information showed up in tawdry news stories – that limits sympathy. Politician blustering, starlet whining etc. I can’t quite throw my circle of empathy around this group of moaners. I want to say: “change your bloody PIN and move on, you crowd of money-grubbing dimwits.”

But hold on, cease your righteous typing in the comment box. I know that would be wrong. I know this is serious, but the offense here is not one of kind – it’s not the essentially adolescent crime of trying a few obvious PINs on a minor royal’s voicemail – but of recklessness, of hugely overdoing it. Had the editors and reporters felt able to confine their ‘hacking’ (it barely merits the label) to genuine miscreants – cocaine lords, oligarchs, privy councillors – this practice would and probably should have carried on essentially unnoticed into the future. In fact, used with discretion and in the public interest – like ‘camera bags‘ and dressing up as a sheik – it would have formed a useful part of the investigative package.

It was the simple greed and desperation for stories (and the whole culture of ‘going out and getting’ and ‘proactively producing’ stories) that blew this up and gave it the potential to undermine journalism as a profession and as a vital public service. Let’s be clear, the ultimate villains in all this will be the editors who permitted, if not actually sponsored, this conduct. And it’s obvious that this is much larger than a single newspaper and a single editor (or even a single proprietor).

A whole generation of Fleet St editors (with a handful of exceptions, I’m sure) will leave their posts having radically diminished their profession and their business – those who put up with or directed this miserable dilution of the values of investigative journalism. And the big question is whether this and other increasingly desperate competitive measures marks the beginning of some kind of final decline for the prints.

There’s a kind of morbid postscript to the whole thing, of course, for we humble readers and voters. It’s the bit where we suspect that legislators were compromised and embarrassed by what they suspected the tabloids had on them and consequently sat on their hands during crucial debates on regulation and ownership. That bit makes my blood boil. The idea that editors may have literally (and I’m using the word ‘literally’ literally here) blackmailed MPs not to back legislation they didn’t like is heartstopping. A giant affront to democracy (it was when Tom Watson alerted us to this nastiness that I really switched on to this scandal).

Viacom’s giant ‘fuck you’

I’ve run a number of pretty big web sites in my time, often maintaining large customer databases and, of course, log files. We kept those log files indefinitely but rarely consulted them. When we did it was always at the request of law enforcement and always in the presence of a warrant. At another.com, which was a free webmail service, it was usually a Russian cracker caching passwords or credit card numbers and on one occasion it was child porn. I dealt with maybe eight or ten such cases in four years or so.

We kept those logs because we wanted to be able to do the right thing in the event of an alleged crime. We didn’t keep them so that witless media giants could build cases against us or compromise the most basic rights of our users. I don’t usually come out on occasions like this but I think that Viacom’s shocking and ignorant raid on YouTube’s user data demands a response. This is legal and moral vandalism on a global scale (national boundaries don’t apply here).

It’s a kind of legalistic ‘fuck you’ from a doomed media monolith, showing the kind of disregard for natural justice, morality and public opinion that leaves people (millions of Viacom’s customers included) open-mouthed in amazement. And I say ‘doomed’ because this is the kind of comically stupid misstep that often marks the beginning of the end for even powerful and profitable businesses like Viacom. What were they thinking? Let’s hope a wiser judge in another court quickly sets this piratical tactic aside.