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Archive for February, 2012

27
Feb

Sam Varghese: Bye, bye Gmail, even snooping has its limits

Sam Varghese explains his decision to cut ties and Leave Google Behind:

Last week I shut down the last of my three Gmail accounts. From 2007, to a greater or lesser extent, these three accounts were used for various purposes, initially enthusiastically, later reluctantly.

Why get away from Gmail altogether? The company has always been snooping on email and feeding through advertisements based on keywords in the mail. But from March 1, the spying will become over-arching, ostensibly to provide a better customer experience.

I want no part of it.

He adds, eloquently:

The internet existed long before Google did. It is built on free and open source software, with protocols that are open as well. Genuine geeks and nerds did the building without any thought of making money.

Now we have advertising and marketing companies masquerading as technology companies and trying to squeeze every stray dollar, rouble, pound, euro and dirham out of people. And doing it under the guise of “improving the customer experience”.

No one company should be allowed to monopolise the services on the net and milk user data to sell its ads or any other service or product. There’s a time to wake up and for me that time is now.

If more people came to this conclusion every day, Google would find it much harder to wage its war on privacy. We need more people to wake up and realize what’s happening. Everyone should care about user privacy and what companies like Google do with their data. Everyone should be cognizant of the consequences of oversharing.

22
Feb

Google critic Daniel Brandt takes all of his sites offline

Google critic Daniel Brandt, the proprietor of Google Watch and Scroogle, confirmed today that he has taken down the latter site – and possibly the former as well – “forever”:

Scroogle, the search engine operated by privacy militant and self-appointed Wikipedia watchdog Daniel Brandt, has folded for real. After enduring DDOS attacks “around the clock” that sent a flood of unsustainable traffic to his servers, Mr. Brandt took down the search engine along with his other four domains, namebase.orggoogle-watch.orgcia-on-campus.org, and book-grab.com. His theory is that he was being attacked by hackers with a personal vendetta.

“These four domains had also been on the web for a long time — NameBase first went online in 1997, and before that had been available on telnet since 1995. I spent 27 years developing NameBase,” he said in an email, and referred to the Wikipedia page.

“I no longer have any domains online,” Mr. Brandt wrote. “I also took all my domains out of DNS because I want to signal to the criminal element that I have no more servers to trash. This hopefully will ward off further attacks on my previous providers.”

Unfortunately, since Brandt has deliberately excluded all of his sites from the Internet Archive (which can be done using a robots.txt file directive), there isn’t a copy of his site out there that we can link to for archival purposes. Which means all of Brandt’s criticism of Google is effectively gone, except for what may remain in search engine caches and privately-created mirrors.

While we can respect Daniel’s wish to go dark, it would be nice if he would be willing to donate his collection of web pages to a university, consumer watchdog group, or other appropriate steward that they remain available to people who want to learn about Google’s war on privacy.

Google Watch was one of the first sites established devoted principally to criticism of Google. It ceased receiving substantive and regular updates several years ago, but it was still a valuable resource. Unfortunately, it has now disappeared.

With Google Watch gone, LGB’s existence has arguably become more important. Leave Google Behind isn’t going anywhere, either. This site will remain online and accessible indefinitely so that those who wish to part ways with Google and find alternatives to its spyware-laden offerings can continue to do so.

18
Feb

Google caught circumventing default Safari user privacy protection settings

Another chapter in the Monster of Mountain View’s War on Privacy is now being written:

Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.

The companies used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users. Safari, the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is designed to block such tracking by default.

Google disabled its code after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal.

Google would have no doubt been happy to continue exploiting the Safari loophole – which was discovered by Stanford grad student Jonathan Meyer – but it needed to contain the bad publicity, so it told the Journal it was removing the offending code. That hasn’t stopped privacy activists and consumer advocates from giving Google a well-deserved, harsh scolding.

“Google has clearly engaged in ‘unfair and deceptive’ practices,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “They have been lying about how people can protect their privacy in their instructions about how to opt out of receiving targeted advertising.”

“The original Google statement that users of Safari who have not changed their privacy settings ‘accomplishes the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie’ is a per se misrepresentation. Not only did the company know this not to be true, it took elaborate measures to circumvent the Safari privacy safeguards, and it benefited from the misrepresentations by the commercial value it surreptitiously obtained. The fact that Google removed the evidence and made it no longer available by means of a Google search (think about that for a moment) is an admission by the company as to its malfeasance,” EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg wrote in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Coming on the heels of Google’s controversial decision to tear down the privacy-protective walls between some of its other services, this is bad news for the company,” agreed staffers with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users. One way that Google can prove itself as a good actor in the online privacy debate is by providing meaningful ways for users to limit what data Google collects about them. Specifically, it’s time that Google’s third-party web servers start respecting Do Not Track requests, and time for Google to offer a built-in Do Not Track option.”

The problem, of course, is that Google isn’t interested in doing a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users. It’s trying to do away with the very idea. And unless users take a stand by choosing to stop doing business with Google – as we have – it may very well succeed.

8
Feb

GooSniff is for real: Google offers to pay users who agree to constant surveillance of all their Internet traffic through a little black box

What will be next? A test of facial recognition technology? The Monster of Mountain View is doing all it can to destroy user privacy as we know it. This is just the latest proof.

Google is working to collect information about Internet users that it can’t get from just monitoring its own browser, services, and Android devices. The company has set up a new program called Screenwise, which offers money to users who install a black box on their home network to “measure Internet use.” A smaller amount of money will go to those who install a browser extension on their computers that will do the same thing.

Google quietly started up the Screenwise data collection program Tuesday night, taking the e-mail addresses of people who are interested in “add[ing] a browser extension that will share with Google the sites you visit and how you use them.” For their participation, Google offers the extension users a $5 Amazon gift card for signing up and another $5 gift card for every three months they stay with the program. Less publicly, Google also started looking for people who would install a piece of hardware on their network to do more extensive monitoring.

Daniel Brandt, who runs Google Watch, foresaw the eventuality of a device like this. In his satirical images gallery, he has a photo of a USB dongle called the GooSniff. It doesn’t exactly correspond to Google’s new black box for snooping, but it’s not far off.

Of course, this is a voluntary program. Unlike many of Google’s other spying activities, it’s opt-in. But that’s because it would be illegal for Google to forcibly install little black boxes in the home offices of every American household. To attract sheep – er, participants – Google is offering a small payout. The cost to them is small, and the potential payoff (in terms of the data collected) is huge.

The more data Google can collect, the better. That’s what they are after. And unless they are stopped, they will become a bigger threat to the privacy and security of millions of Americans than the National Security Agency.