Chrome will let you block cross-site tracking

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The rumors were true — Google plans to let you block cross-site tracking in Chrome. The search firm has unveiled efforts to improve its cookie controls by distinguishing between single- and multi-site cookies, giving you the option to delete trackers without losing the cookies you use for logins and other important tasks. To make that work, Google will ask web developers to specify which cookies work across sites — if they don’t, Chrome won’t play nicely.

The feature relies on a web standard and is available to test in the latest developer version of Chrome. Previews for both the cross-site controls and greater transparency on those controls will be available later in 2019.

Beyond this, Google plans to “more aggressively” limit fingerprinting (that is, techniques for profiling web users beyond cookies). The method is “opaque,” Google said, and typically doesn’t respect web users’ preferences.

The company also vowed greater transparency for ads run on its sites and those of its partners. To start, an open-source browser add-on will disclose the names of companies involved and the factors used to target ads. Google is likewise promising frameworks that will let other ad companies disclose similar info.

Google’s Chrome additions come as part of a renewed privacy initiative at the company that includes expanding Incognito Mode as well as tighter privacy controls in Android Q. The goal remains the same — while Google’s business ultimately depends on collecting data, it wants to curb abuses and give users more control when possible. Site operators and advertisers might not like it, as this could require extensive work to keep some features working as intended. On the whole, though, Google clearly feels the trade-off is worthwhile.

Catch up on all the latest news from Google IO 2019 here!

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It turns out purposely messing with your targeted ads isn't a good idea

Image: Getty Images

Facebook is convinced that I am a young mother with a love of kraken-themed decor. 

Unless you count my cat, who is 11-years-old and the animal equivalent of the grumpy old man from Up, I absolutely do not have a child. But for the last six months, my feed has been inundated with ads for baby products, from nasal suction devices to teething toys that look like plush versions of a bad acid trip. 

Over the summer, my cat underwent a veterinary procedure that, to spare the nasty details for the faint of heart, required me to dab antibiotic ointment on his butt twice a day. Because he had a knack for getting out of his cone of shame and getting ointment everywhere, I put him in diapers for the day after the surgery. But diapers made specifically for pets are absurdly expensive, so I bought a pack of (human) infant diapers online and went on my cat owner way. I started seeing ads for baby products that night. 

I know big tech companies have too much on me already. I’ve been on social media since I was 10-years-old, entering my email and date of birth on Neopets and Club Penguin, so my data has likely been tracked for more than half of my life. I’m online for a majority of my day, and I’ve accepted the fact that my digital footprint runs too deep for me to ever truly go off the grid. 

Which is exactly why I’ve started fucking with my ads. 

It’s not just weird baby products. I’ve been curating my ads to show me extremely specific cephalopod-shaped home decor. After months of carefully engaging with ads, I’ve finally cultivated what I want to see on my Facebook feed. 

This is exactly the decor I want, Amazon.

Image: screenshot/morgan sung

I've been engaging specifically with kraken-themed ads.

Image: screenshot/morgan sung

I’m not the only one. Caroline, a Twitter user who tweets under the handle @defundpoppunk, also curates their ads. After clicking on specific Facebook ads, they managed to prune their feed like an artisanal algorithm — a concept first floated by Twitter user @JanelleCShane — into a masterpiece: Unreasonably baggy pants.

It’s like a cursed personal data-laden bonsai tree. 

Caroline says they searched for jogger-style pants before, and has been getting ads for them ever since. For weeks, they’ve been clicking on any ad featuring “vaguely interesting-looking” pants. 

Like me, Caroline is fed up with the unending lack of privacy we have, and started engaging with their ads just to mess with them. 

“So at first it was a little bit of private trolling just because I know e-comm [e-commerce] people take their click through rates really seriously,” they told Mashable through Twitter DM. “But then once I started my targeted ads actually changing, I got a little more deliberate about it out of curiosity.” 

Aside from being an “amusing reminder that everyone is being tracked online constantly,” as Caroline said, playing with targeted ads is like playing a game. 

There’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that even though I as an individual can’t really stop power hungry tech giants, I’m giving them a digital middle finger by engaging with the “wrong” ads. It’s the online version of the Florida man who runs into hurricanes with heavy metal and American flags. Realistically, messing with my ads won’t shroud me from the inevitable tracking that comes from being online, but it feels like I’m making it slightly more inconvenient for large corporations to know everything about the real me. 

Shoshana Wodinsky, a tech reporter at Adweek, gets why deliberately polluting your targeted ads is entertaining. 

“These kinds of big tech platforms are really powerful,” she said during a Skype call. “They’re like multibillion dollar companies and the fact that they screw up sometimes is kind of funny. Part of it’s definitely punching up, but part of it’s like, even these behemoths are somewhat fucked up.”

Wodinsky has also experimented with purposely muddling her digital presence; she once changed her Bitmoji to be pregnant to see if it would affect her targeted ads. (She told Mashable that she is very much not pregnant, and during her interview, she said that the only children she has are her two cats.) Although she said it started “as a joke,” she wondered how far she could take it.

“Realistically, I know that me pretending to be pregnant isn’t going to do anything, but it’s kind of like looking outside of the fishbowl,” she said. “It’s fucking over the big businesses, and who doesn’t like to do that.” 

Less than half an hour after creating the Bitmoji, her ad interests included “motherhood” and “breastfeeding.”

It’s unclear what prompted Facebook to include those options in her interests — it could have been her Bitmoji, or it could have been the fact that she tweeted about it. 

Realistically, just clicking on and engaging with specific ads won’t do much to your digital footprint; if you really wanted to go deep, you’d have to change your entire online behavior. Your ads aren’t just targeted based on what you interact with on specific social media platforms, but what you search and interact with across the entire internet. Thanks to the cookies Facebook uses to track users, regardless of whether or not you’re logged in, you can leave fingerprints all over the web. Truly tricking the algorithm would mean a complete overhaul of your search habits, your social media, and whatever personal information is publicly available. 

Meddling with your ad preferences by intentionally engaging with them sounds like a harmless prank, but it might have a dark side. Dr. Russell Newman, a professor at Emerson College who specializes in internet privacy, surveillance, and political communication, worries that any engagement with ads can have long term consequences. 

“You might feel like you’re exercising some bit of control, but in fact, you have none,” he said during a phone interview. “There are unknown ways that the game you are playing right now will affect your future existence, and you won’t really be able to know.”

Newman stresses that we really have no idea what information can be pulled from our online interactions, and how it can be used in the future. Because internet users are “seen in a particular way, quantified in a particular way, and identified in a particular way,” he says, engaging with certain ads and showing a preference for certain ads can preclude certain options. He worries that engagement like this can affect life-altering factors like credit score. It sounds far fetched, but Newman said convincing advertisers that my cat is actually my baby, for example, could possibly affect my future health insurance premiums without me even knowing. 

“All the decisions that are going to be made about you going forward,” Newman said. “Or the rest of your existence, are going to be based on the truth provided digitally.”

Washington Post editor Gillian Brockell experienced the insidious side of online advertising last year. Shortly after she delivered her son, who was stillborn, the credit company Experian sent her an email prompting her to “finish registering” her child to track his credit for life. She noted in a viral Twitter thread that she had never even started registering her baby, and it was particularly cruel that companies wanted his information after his death.

“These tech companies triggered that on their own, based on information we shared, Brockell wrote in a piece reflecting on how she never asked to be targeted with parenting ads. “So what I’m asking is that there be similar triggers to turn this stuff off on its own, based on information we’ve shared.”

Newman emphasizes that while Google, Facebook, and Amazon market themselves as a search engine, social media network, and online marketplace, respectively, the companies have a greater goal: advertising. 

“It’s notable that you’re saying, ‘My privacy is gone, so I’m just going to roll with it,'” Newman said during a phone interview. “The problem isn’t that your privacy is gone, the problem is that we don’t actually have a nationwide regime set in place in regards to privacy.”

Luckily, there are a number of ways to scale back on ad tracking, from opting out of social media data collection to using private browsers

Here’s the bottom line: It turns out messing with my targeted ads probably wasn’t a good idea. As satisfying as it is to make it slightly more inconvenient for advertisers, purposely engaging with ads for kraken-specific products is less damaging than limiting the data that advertisers can hold over me. Since my conversation with Newman, I’ve stopped haphazardly clicking on strange ads and opted out of sharing across my social media presence. 

But old habits are hard to break, and I admit that when I’m scrolling through Facebook before bed, I’ll still linger on ads that include octopi. 

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Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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Apple may be developing a Tile-like tracking tag

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Apple might be preparing to move into Tile’s territory, as it’s reportedly developing a physical tag you’d be able to attach to any object to track its location. It’s also working on an app that will essentially merge Find My Friends and Find My iPhone, according to 9to5 Mac.

The tag is said to link to your iCloud account when you place it close to your iPhone, akin to how you’d pair AirPods. If the tag moves too far away from your phone, you can receive a notification. You should be able to set up safe zones, where you can leave a tagged item without receiving those notifications. You may also have the option to share tag locations with friends and family.

You’ll be able to store your contact details on the tag, according to the report. So, when you’ve denoted a tagged item as lost, any Apple device can read the information and you’ll receive a notification when someone has found it. That’s a clever way for Apple to take advantage of its enormous number of active devices, and give its tag a leg up over the competition.

Meanwhile, Apple is said to be internally testing the Find My Friends/iPhone replacement app, which would be available on iOS and macOS (as a Marzipan app). It reportedly includes a feature called Find Network, which will supposedly help you track devices even when they aren’t connected to WiFi or a mobile network.

Friends will apparently be able to send location-sharing requests. If a friend shares their location with you, you may be able to set up notifications for when they arrive at or leave a certain place. You’ll have the option of placing devices in lost mode within the app, or get them to play a sound if you’re having trouble finding them.

It’s not clear if or when Apple will officially announce all this. It typically reveals significant iOS news at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, so we might hear more about the unified app then. As for the tracker, there’s a chance it could make its debut at this year’s iPhone event in September.

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UK will track thousands of criminals with GPS tags

AP Photo/Sang Tan

It’s not a novel idea to make criminals wear GPS bracelets, but they could soon be relatively commonplace in the UK. The country’s government plans to use them for around-the-clock monitoring of criminals across England and Wales by the summer, with a handful of regions already putting them to use. They’ll be used to both track behavior when out of prison (say, to ensure offenders attend rehab) and enforce geographic limits like restraining orders.

The government estimated that roughly 4,000 people will receive GPS tags each year, but no more than 1,000 people will wear tags at any given time.

As with earlier uses, there are ethical advantages and drawbacks. This could avoid or reduce prison sentences for minor offenses, and more effectively monitor serious criminals when allowed to reenter society. The current electronic tags can indicate if a wearer is present at a given building, but it’s not much use outside of those narrow conditions. However, it still amounts to 24/7 location tracking for people who, in some cases, committed only non-violent crimes. While convicts aren’t about to earn much sympathy, there’s little doubt that they’re losing a lot of privacy.

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Hong Kong is testing high-tech monitoring systems for 'smart' prisons


Prisons in Hong Kong are testing a variety of high-tech services that will allow correctional facilities to better track inmates, according to the South China Morning Post. The city’s Commissioner of Correctional Services, Danny Woo Ying-min, claimed the new services will be used to monitor for abnormal behavior among the incarcerated, prevent self-harm, and operate the prisons more efficiently.

The “smart prison” initiative includes strapping inmates with fitness tracker-style wristbands that monitor location and activity, including heart rate. Some facilities will also start to use video surveillance systems that can identify any unusual behavior, fights and attempts to inflict harm on one’s self. Correctional Services is also testing robots that will be used to search for drugs in feces from inmates. The robots, which reportedly cost about $125,000, seem to have less to do with supposed inmate safety methods and increased efficiency and more to do with guards not wanting to deal with poop.

While the programs are being positioned as an attempt to keep inmates safe, the new smart programs likely feel invasive for the incarcerated who are being subject to them. The video surveillance system includes placing cameras in bathrooms, and the tracking wristbands place inmates under permanent watch of guards even when they aren’t in front of a camera.

Evolving technology has opened up new ways to track incarcerated people with little consideration given to their rights. Recently, it was revealed that prisons in the US were creating audio prints of prisoners and people they spoke to on the phone, often without permission, while UK jails once considered RFID implants for people behind bars.

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