Entries Tagged "adware"
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Google’s new ways to violate your privacy and—more importantly—how to opt out.
For the past month or so, Forbes has been blocking browsers with ad blockers. Today, I tried to access a Wired article and the site blocked me for the same reason.
I see this as another battle in this continuing arms race, and hope/expect that the ad blockers will update themselves to fool the ad blocker detectors.
But in a fine example of irony, the Forbes site has been serving malware in its ads.
And it seems that Forbes is inconsistently using its ad blocker blocker. At least, I was able to get to that linked article last week. But then I couldn’t get to another article a few days later.
This research shows how to track e-commerce users better across multiple sessions, even when they do not provide unique identifiers such as user IDs or cookies.
Abstract: Targeting individual consumers has become a hallmark of direct and digital marketing, particularly as it has become easier to identify customers as they interact repeatedly with a company. However, across a wide variety of contexts and tracking technologies, companies find that customers can not be consistently identified which leads to a substantial fraction of anonymous visits in any CRM database. We develop a Bayesian imputation approach that allows us to probabilistically assign anonymous sessions to users, while ac- counting for a customer’s demographic information, frequency of interaction with the firm, and activities the customer engages in. Our approach simultaneously estimates a hierarchical model of customer behavior while probabilistically imputing which customers made the anonymous visits. We present both synthetic and real data studies that demonstrate our approach makes more accurate inference about individual customers’ preferences and responsiveness to marketing, relative to common approaches to anonymous visits: nearest- neighbor matching or ignoring the anonymous visits. We show how companies who use the proposed method will be better able to target individual customers, as well as infer how many of the anonymous visits are made by new customers.
This is creepy and disturbing:
Privacy advocates are warning federal authorities of a new threat that uses inaudible, high-frequency sounds to surreptitiously track a person’s online behavior across a range of devices, including phones, TVs, tablets, and computers.
The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser. While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.
Related: a Chrome extension that broadcasts URLs over audio.
EDITED TO ADD (12/14): More here.
Here’s an interesting research paper that tries to calculate the differential value of privacy-invasive advertising practices.
The researchers used data from a mobile ad network and was able to see how different personalized advertising practices affected customer purchasing behavior. The details are interesting, but basically, most personal information had little value. Overall, the ability to target advertising produces a 29% greater return on an advertising budget, mostly by knowing the right time to show someone a particular ad.
The paper was presented at WEIS 2015.
There are smart billboards in Russia that change what they display when cops are watching.
Of course there are a gazillion ways this kind of thing will go wrong. I’m more interested in the general phenomenon of smart devices identifying us automatically and without our knowledge.
In December, Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt was interviewed at the CATO Institute Surveillance Conference. One of the things he said, after talking about some of the security measures his company has put in place post-Snowden, was: “If you have important information, the safest place to keep it is in Google. And I can assure you that the safest place to not keep it is anywhere else.”
The surprised me, because Google collects all of your information to show you more targeted advertising. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet, and Google is one of the most successful companies at that. To claim that Google protects your privacy better than anyone else is to profoundly misunderstand why Google stores your data for free in the first place.
I was reminded of this last week when I appeared on Glenn Beck’s show along with cryptography pioneer Whitfield Diffie. Diffie said:
You can’t have privacy without security, and I think we have glaring failures in computer security in problems that we’ve been working on for 40 years. You really should not live in fear of opening an attachment to a message. It ought to be confined; your computer ought to be able to handle it. And the fact that we have persisted for decades without solving these problems is partly because they’re very difficult, but partly because there are lots of people who want you to be secure against everyone but them. And that includes all of the major computer manufacturers who, roughly speaking, want to manage your computer for you. The trouble is, I’m not sure of any practical alternative.
That neatly explains Google. Eric Schmidt does want your data to be secure. He wants Google to be the safest place for your data as long as you don’t mind the fact that Google has access to your data. Facebook wants the same thing: to protect your data from everyone except Facebook. Hardware companies are no different. Last week, we learned that Lenovo computers shipped with a piece of adware called Superfish that broke users’ security to spy on them for advertising purposes.
Governments are no different. The FBI wants people to have strong encryption, but it wants backdoor access so it can get at your data. UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants you to have good security, just as long as it’s not so strong as to keep the UK government out. And, of course, the NSA spends a lot of money ensuring that there’s no security it can’t break.
Corporations want access to your data for profit; governments want it for security purposes, be they benevolent or malevolent. But Diffie makes an even stronger point: we give lots of companies access to our data because it makes our lives easier.
I wrote about this in my latest book, Data and Goliath:
Convenience is the other reason we willingly give highly personal data to corporate interests, and put up with becoming objects of their surveillance. As I keep saying, surveillance-based services are useful and valuable. We like it when we can access our address book, calendar, photographs, documents, and everything else on any device we happen to be near. We like services like Siri and Google Now, which work best when they know tons about you. Social networking apps make it easier to hang out with our friends. Cell phone apps like Google Maps, Yelp, Weather, and Uber work better and faster when they know our location. Letting apps like Pocket or Instapaper know what we’re reading feels like a small price to pay for getting everything we want to read in one convenient place. We even like it when ads are targeted to exactly what we’re interested in. The benefits of surveillance in these and other applications are real, and significant.
Like Diffie, I’m not sure there is any practical alternative. The reason the Internet is a worldwide mass-market phenomenon is that all the technological details are hidden from view. Someone else is taking care of it. We want strong security, but we also want companies to have access to our computers, smart devices, and data. We want someone else to manage our computers and smart phones, organize our e-mail and photos, and help us move data between our various devices.
Those “someones” will necessarily be able to violate our privacy, either by deliberately peeking at our data or by having such lax security that they’re vulnerable to national intelligence agencies, cybercriminals, or both. Last week, we learned that the NSA broke into the Dutch company Gemalto and stole the encryption keys for billions yes, billions of cell phones worldwide. That was possible because we consumers don’t want to do the work of securely generating those keys and setting up our own security when we get our phones; we want it done automatically by the phone manufacturers. We want our data to be secure, but we want someone to be able to recover it all when we forget our password.
We’ll never solve these security problems as long as we’re our own worst enemy. That’s why I believe that any long-term security solution will not only be technological, but political as well. We need laws that will protect our privacy from those who obey the laws, and to punish those who break the laws. We need laws that require those entrusted with our data to protect our data. Yes, we need better security technologies, but we also need laws mandating the use of those technologies.
This essay previously appeared on Forbes.com.
EDITED TO ADD: French translation.
It’s not just national intelligence agencies that break your https security through man-in-the-middle attacks. Corporations do it, too. For the past few months, Lenovo PCs have shipped with an adware app called Superfish that man-in-the-middles TLS connections.
And you should get rid of it, not merely because it’s nasty adware. It’s a security risk. Someone with the password—here it is, cracked—can perform a man-in-the-middle attack on your security as well.
Superfish, as well, exhibited extreme cluelessness by claiming its sofware poses no security risk. That was before someone cracked its password, though.
EDITED TO ADD (2/23): Another good article.
EDITED TO ADD (2/24): More commentary.
EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Rumors are that any software from Barak Weichselbaum may be vulnerable. This site tests for the vulnerability. Better removal instructions.
This is not a good development:
To make matters worse, ownership of a Chrome extension can be transferred to another party, and users are never informed when an ownership change happens. Malware and adware vendors have caught wind of this and have started showing up at the doors of extension authors, looking to buy their extensions. Once the deal is done and the ownership of the extension is transferred, the new owners can issue an ad-filled update over Chrome’s update service, which sends the adware out to every user of that extension.
When malicious apps don’t follow Google’s disclosure policy, diagnosing something like this is extremely difficult. When Tweet This Page started spewing ads and malware into my browser, the only initial sign was that ads on the Internet had suddenly become much more intrusive, and many auto-played sound. The extension only started injecting ads a few days after it was installed in an attempt to make it more difficult to detect. After a while, Google search became useless, because every link would redirect to some other webpage. My initial thought was to take an inventory of every program I had installed recently—I never suspected an update would bring in malware. I ran a ton of malware/virus scanners, and they all found nothing. I was only clued into the fact that Chrome was the culprit because the same thing started happening on my Chromebook—if I didn’t notice that, the next step would have probably been a full wipe of my computer.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.