champagne anarchist | armchair activist


Trick the trackers with a flood of meaningless data

A couple years ago, Apple obtained a patent for an intriguing idea: create a fake döppelganger that shares some characteristics with you, say birth date and hair colour, but with other interests - say basket weaving. A cloning service would visit and interact with websites in your name, messing up the profile companies like Google and Facebook are keeping of you.

I don’t think anyone has implemented it. But now I read at Mathbabe’s blog about a similar idea that actually has been implemented. It’s called Noiszy and it is

a free browser plugin that runs in the background on Jane’s computer (or yours!) and creates real-but-meaningless web data – digital «noise». It visits and navigates around websites from within the user’s browser, leaving your misleading digital footprints wherever it goes.

Cool project. However, it has been argued that the organisations that are tracking you can easily filter out the random noise created by Noiszy.

Quitting Facebook

Last month, data scientist Vicki Boykis posted an interesting article about the kind of data Facebook collects about you. It’s one of those articles that make you think: I really should delete my Facebook account - and then you don’t.

One could argue that Google search data illustrates how people relate to Facebook. People know Facebook isn’t good for them, but they can’t bring themselves to quit. However, when it’s time for New Year’s resolutions, they start googling how to delete their account.

UPDATE - Vicki Boykis just suggested to label major news events. In the past Google Trends had a feature that did just that, but I think they killed it. Of course, you can still do Google or Google News searches for a particular period. As a start I added two stories that may have contributed to the mid–2014 peak. Let’s see if other people come up with more.


Note that the Google search data is per week so each data point really refers to the week starting at that date.

I wanted to do a chart like this in December last year, which would perhaps have been a more appropriate moment. However, I didn’t get consistent data out of Google Trends using search terms like quit facebook. The other day, after deleting my own Facebook account, I realised I had probably used the wrong search term. People don’t search for quit facebook but more likely for delete facebook - they’re looking for technical advice on how to delete their account.

The moralism and hypocrisy around ad blockers

With my new iPhone, I can finally install ad blockers. When I tried to find information about the available options, I was struck by the moralism and hypocrisy of many articles on the subject. This subtitle says it all: How to use ad-blockers in iOS 9 (and why you shouldn’t).

Sure, the article makes some valid points. One may question Apple’s motives for allowing ad blockers. And certainly, one may question Adblock’s policy to allow «acceptable ads» from companies that pay them a fee (so use an alternative like the open source uBlock Origin instead). But the claim that ad blocking could «kill journalism as we know it» seems a bit over the top.

The advertising industry tries to frame ad blocking as an attack on «the little guy», by which they mean small, independent publishers. Their strategy is similar to the Home taping is killing music campaign of the 1980s, by which the music industry tried to make us believe that home taping was bad for musicians. In reality, home taping was killing the profits of the very industry that was exploiting those musicians in the first place.

Journalists should be paid for their work, but I’m not convinced advertising is the solution. Ads are annoying, they slow down the internet, they waste valuable surface on mobile screens, they often come with scripts that track you and sometimes they spread malware. Perhaps even more importantly: ideally, journalists shouldn’t depend on advertising in the first place, because advertising is killing independent journalism.

So how should journalists get paid? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. One way is to pay collectively, which may work rather well (BBC), but it does entail some degree of state regulation. Another way is to buy subscriptions from each site or publisher who publish interesting articles - but that’s rather cumbersome.

A practical alternative are subscription services like Blendle - described as the «the Netflix or Spotify for journalism» (although it’s more like iTunes in that you pay per article). Blendle is an interesting initiative, but there’s reason for caution.

If successful, services like Blendle may well develop into large corporations that try to control access to news stories - much like Spotify tries to control access to music (and Facebook tries to control access to news stories). The outcome could be that subscription services become profitable by exploiting journalists. Also, subscription services could amass an unhealthy degree of control over what we read, and could introduce similar opaque algorithms as the ones Facebook uses to decide what content we get to see.

Things might get interesting if journalists would draw inspiration from musicians and set up cooperatives. These could take the form of not-for-profit Blendle alternatives that offer independent quality journalism at a fair price, produced by journalists who are paid a fair wage for their work.

For now, ad blockers not only offer practical benefits; they also force the internet to address its unhealthy dependency on advertising.

Collecting data on millions of Facebook users to analyse their psychological traits

The Guardian has revealed how British academics have collected information about millions of Facebook users and used the data to score them on openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The academics were paid by funders of the campaign of US presidential candidate Ted «Carpet Bomb» Cruz.

The fact that information from public Facebook profiles can be used to create psychological profiles is intriguing but not really new. Researchers have claimed they can assess someone’s personality reasonably well by analysing what they like on Facebook or by analysing personal information, activities and preferences, language features and internal Facebook statistics.

What was new to me (but apparently not to everyone) is how the academics connected to the Cruz campaign went about collecting people’s Facebook data. They used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to recruit people to fill out a questionnaire that would give the researchers access to that person’s Facebook profile. Not only would they download data about the participants themselves, but also about their Facebook friends - even though those friends were unaware of this and hadn’t given permission. Participants were paid about $1 each for access to their Facebook network.

According to the Guardian, Facebook users had on average 340 friends in 2014. Of course, there’s considerable overlap between people’s networks so it can be assumed that the average participant would yield far less than 340 new profiles. Even so, this would seem to be a pretty efficient - if sneaky - way to collect data on Facebook users.

The Guardian doesn’t discuss whether this method would still work today, but I doubt it would. Out of concern for the privacy of its users (sure!) Facebook has cut off access to users’ friends’ data when it updated it’s API earlier this year.

Can they track you by your smartphone battery status

Who knew. Apparently, websites can collect pretty detailed information about the battery of the laptop or smartphone you’re using. They can see if you’re currently charging the battery. If you are, they can see how long it’ll take before it’s fully charged. If you aren’t, they can see how long it’ll last.

I read about this in the Guardian, which has an article about a study that apparently found that the detailed information obtained through the HTML5 battery status API can in some cases be used to identify users, at least over a short period, even if they use a VPN or Chrome’s private browsing mode.

However, the API doesn’t work in all browsers. In fact, I googled around to find out how it works and it turns out you need different code to get it working in Firefox than in Chrome. And while I got the code working on my Macbook, it didn’t work on my iPhone - not even with Chrome.

So how about your device? You can check below if the code works with your combination of browser and device. Let me know!

Your battery status

Let me know what it shows on your device: