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Kettled by Big Tech?

Yesterday on Mastodon, I shared with dismay Facebook’s decision to impose ‘login via Facebook account’ on the Oculus range of products. If, like me, you have an Oculus VR headset, but don’t want a Facebook account, then your device is going to become pretty useless to you.

The subsequent discussion included a request not to share links to the Oculus blog due to the number of Facebook trackers on the page. Others replied talking about the need to visit such sites using Firefox multi-account containers, as well as ensuring you have adblockers and other privacy extensions installed. One person likened it to needing an “internet condom” because “it’s a red light district out there”.

I struggle to explain the need for privacy and my anti-Facebook stance to those who can’t just see the associated problems. Sexualised metaphors such as the above are illustrative but not helpful in this regard.

Perhaps a police tactic to contain and disperse protesters might serve as a better analogy?

Kettling (also known as containment or corralling) is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters either leave through an exit controlled by the police or are contained, prevented from leaving, and arrested.

Wikipedia

The analogy might seem a little strained. Who are the protesters? Do the police represent Big Tech? What’s a ‘demonstration’ in this context?

However, let’s go one step further…

[K]ettling is sometimes described as “corralling,” likening the tactic to the enclosure of livestock. Although large groups are difficult to control, this can be done by concentrations of police. The tactic prevents the large group breaking into smaller splinters that have to be individually chased down, thus requiring the policing to break into multiple groups. Once the kettle has been formed, the cordon is tightened, which may include the use of baton charges to restrict the territory occupied by the protesters.

Wikipedia

In this situation, the analogy is perhaps a little easier to see. Protesters, who in this case would be privacy advocates and anti-surveillance protesters, are ‘kettled’ by monopolistic practices that effectively force them to get with the program.

Whether it’s Facebook buying Oculus and forcing their data collections practices on users, or websites ‘breaking’ when privacy extensions are active, it all gets a bit tiring.

Which brings us back to kettling. The whole point of this tactic is to wear down protesters:

Peter Waddington, a sociologist and former police officer who helped develop the theory behind kettling, wrote: “I remain firmly of the view that containment succeeds in restoring order by using boredom as its principle weapon, rather than fear as people flee from on-rushing police wielding batons.

Wikipedia

It’s a difficult fight to win, but an important one. We do so through continuing to protests, but also through encouraging one another, communicating, and pushing for changes in laws around monopolies and surveillance.


This post is Day 35 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

We’re the real losers of realtime behavioural advertising auctions

Like many people in my immediate networks, I think behavioural advertising is rotting the web. It’s the reason that I have four different privacy-focused extensions in my web browser and use a privacy-focused web browser on my smartphone.

As a result, when I go start looking for some new running shoes, as I have this week, some that I considered buying yesterday don’t ‘follow me around the web’ today, popping up in other sites and tempting me to buy them.

The political implications of this behavioural advertising are increasingly well-known after the surprise results of the US Presidental election and Brexit a few years ago. Advertisers participate in real-time auctions for access to particular demographics.

But what’s less well-known, and just as important, is what happens to the losers of the realtime auctions when you visit a site.

Say you visit the Washington Post. Dozens of brokers bid on the chance to advertise to you. All but one of them loses the auction. But every one of those losers gets to add a tag to its dossier on you: “Washington Post reader.”

Advertising on the Washington Post is expensive. “Washington Post reader” is a valuable category unto itself: a lot of blue-chip firms will draw up marketing plans that say, “Make sure we tell Washington Post readers about this product!”

Here’s the thing: the companies want to advertise to Washington Post readers, but they don’t care about advertising in the Washington Post. And now there are dozens of auction “losers” who can sell the right to advertise to you, as a Post reader, when you visit cheaper sites.

When you click through one of those dreadful “Here’s 22 reasons to put a rubber band on your hotel room’s door handle” websites, every one of those 22 pages can be sold to advertisers who want to reach Post readers, at a fraction of what the Post charges.

Cory Doctorow, Pluralistic

I kind of knew this, but it’s useful to have it explained in such a succinct way by Doctorow.

So if you’re not currently performing self-defence against behavioural advertising, here’s what I use in Firefox on my desktop and laptop:

These overlap one another to a great extent, but good things happen when I use all three in tandem. On mobile, I rely on Firefox Focus and Blokada.

You might also be interested in a microcast I recorded back in January for Thought Shrapnel on the Firefox extensions I use on a daily basis.


This post is Day 25 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Decentralised technologies mean censorship-resistant websites

As I write this, I’m in an apartment in Barcelona, after speaking and running a workshop at an event.

On Sunday, there was a vote for Catalonian independence. It went ahead due to the determination of teachers (who kept schools open as voting centres), the bravery of firemen and Catalan police (who resisted Spanish police), and… technology.

As I mentioned in the first section of my presentation on Wednesday, I’m no expert on Spanish politics, but I am very interested in the Catalonian referendum from a technological point of view. Not only did the Spanish government take a heavy-handed approach by sending in masked police to remove ballot boxes, but they applied this to the digital domain, raiding internet service providers, blocking websites, and seizing control of referendum-related websites.

Yet, people still accessed websites that helped them vote. In fact, around 42% managed to do so, despite all of the problems and potential danger in doing so. By way of contrast, no more than 43% of the population has ever voted in a US Presidential election (see comments section). There have been claims of voting irregularities (which can be expected when Spanish police were using batons and rubber bullets), but of those who voted, 90% voted in favour of independence.

People managed to find out the information they required through word of mouth and via websites that were censorship-resistant. The technologists responsible for keeping the websites up despite interference from Madrid used IPFS, which stands for Inter Planetary File System. IPFS is a decentralised system which manages to remove the reliance on a single point of failure (or censorship) while simultaneously solving problems around inefficiencies caused by unecessary file duplication.

The problem with IPFS, despite its success in this situation is that it’s mainly used via the command line. As much as I’d like everyone to have some skills around using terminal windows, realistically that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon in a world of Instagram and Candy Crush.

Instead, I’ve been spending time investigating ZeroNet, which is specifically positioned as providing “open, free and uncensorable websites, using bitcoin cryptography and bitorrent network”. Instead of there being ‘gateways’ through which you can access ZeroNet sites through the open web, you have to install it and then run it locally in a web browser. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, and the cross-platform functionality has an extremely good-looking user interface.

I’ve created a ‘Doug, uncensored’ blog using ZeroNet. This can be accessed via anyone who is running the service and knows the (long) address. When you access the site you’re accessing it on your own machine and then serving it up to — just like with bittorrent. It’s the realisation of the People’s Cloud idea that Vinay Gupta came up with back in 2013. The great thing about that is the websites work even when you’re offline, and sync when you re-connect.

As with constant exhortations for people to be more careful about their privacy and security, so decentralised technologies might seem ‘unnecessary’ by most people when everything is going fine. However, just as we put curtains on our windows and locks on our doors, and sign contracts ‘just in case’ something goes wrong, so I think decentralised technologies should be our default.

Why do we accept increased centralisation and surveillance as the price of being part of the digital society? Why don’t we take back control?

Again, as I mentioned in my presentation on Wednesday, we look backwards too much when we’re talking about digital skills, competencies, and literacies. Instead, let’s look forward and ensure that the next generation of technologies don’t sell us down the river for advertising dollars.

Have a play with ZeroNet and, if you want to really think through where we might be headed with all of this, check out Bitnation.

Image CC BY-NC-ND Adolfo Luhan

Indie Tech Summit: On raising the next generation [VIDEO]

On U.S. Independence Day this year I was in Brighton (England) for the Indie Tech Summit. The focus was on discussing sustainable & ethical alternatives to corporate surveillance. Aral Balkan, the organiser, invited me to speak after we had a long discussion when I crashed the Thinking Digital closing party and I wrote this blog post.

All of the videos from the Summit are now up, and the Indie Tech team have done a great job with them. Here’s mine:

(not showing? click here or here)

The slides I used can be found on Slideshare and a full verbatim transcription of the talk is on this page.

I’d be interested in your reaction to what I have to say in this talk, especially if you’re involved in formal education in any way (educator, parent, etc.)

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