A novel concept: Let consumers decide which personal data to share with trackers
The use of ad-blocking browser extenstions increased 30 percent in 2016, according to ad industry trade group PageFair (pdf). There are now 615 million PCs and mobile devices with ad-blocking software installed. Blocked ads are expected to cost advertisers $27 billion by 2020, according to CNBC.
PageFair researchers quoted by Business Insider's Lara O'Reilly in a January 31, 2017, article claim the primary reason people use ad blockers is to prevent malware. By contrast, in 2014 the principal motivation for using an ad blocker was privacy. According to Lyndsey Burton in a May 6, 2017, post on the LSE Business Review blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science, people who block ads aren't totally averse to having their personal data collected. What they want is the ability to prevent certain types of information from being scooped up.
Burton is the founder of the UK consumer information site Choose. She cites a study from researchers at Syracuse University that found two-thirds of consumers don't understand how their online activities are tracked by ad networks. The study results are summarized in a February 1, 2017, post on Phys.org. The researchers conclude that this lack of transparency leads people to block all ads when in fact they are willing to share some personal information with advertisers and other third parties.
Giving users the chance to filter ad types and select the data to share
Ad blocking need not be all or nothing. Burton outlines a middle ground where online advertisers and the publishing industry are able to generate revenue from ads while offering consumers the ability to choose the type of ads they are shown, and the categories of personal information they share with the data collectors.
A prototype of such a system was devised by researchers at the University of Oxford. Self-Authored Interest (SAI) profiling gives people the opportunity to decide what information they share. According to the researchers, the result is that online ads are more effective, and the desire of users to block all ads is diminished.
Burton claims that by replacing the current "behavior-based" profiles with SAI, advertisers and publishers will generate more revenue. That will help keep publishers in business and journalism alive at a time when factual news reporting is needed more than ever. (Note that the News Media Alliance is taking the regulatory approach to reining in the dominance of Facebook and Google in the online-ad sphere, as Sara Fischer reports in a July 9, 2017, post on Axios.)
Combatting online trackers takes considerable effort
If you've got a half a day to spare, you can opt out of many of the services that track your online activities -- one at a time. In a July 3, 2017, post on the New York Times, Tim Herrera provides links to the opt-out settings for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter (via a May 18, 2017, Forbes article), and various email services. Herrera also links to articles on ad and tracking blockers for your browser, and on encrypting your online activities.
Not many people are willing to spend the time required to tweak their ad-preference settings on a site-by-site basis. If you use an ad blocker, you're familiar with the pop-ups that appear on a growing number of sites requiring that you whitelist the site in your blocking extenstion before the content you requested will appear. This doesn't do much to enhance the user experience.
The chilling effect of surveillance on internet speech
The difficulty of preventing online surveillance contributes to the chilling effect that constantly being watched has on people's behavior. Jonathon W. Penney of the University of Toronto Citizen Lab writes in a July 7, 2017, article on Slate that his research indicates women and young people are most likely to act differently in response to surveillance.
A survey conducted by the Citizen Lab found that being aware of government surveillance made people much less likely (22 percent) or somewhat less likely (40 percent) to "speak or write about certain topics online." Further, 38 percent of the survey respondents "strongly" agreed that surveillance makes them more cautious about what they say online, and another 40 percent indicated that they "somewhat" agreed with the statement.
According to Penney, the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to alter their behavior due to awareness of surveillance generally, and even more so as a result of government snooping. Women are more likely to alter their online activities when threatened with legal action, and women and young people are less likely to challenge such threats than men and older people.
Penney says the "social cooling" that results from the awareness of persistent surveillance leads to "greater self-censorship, conformity, caution, reticence, and fear." He concludes that the chilling effects of online surveillance and legal/regulatory threats put our freedom of speech at risk "in subtle and invidious ways."
One warrant, 3 million calls intercepted, 0 convictions: As part of a narcotics investigation in Pennsylvania in 2016, an "unknown government agency" was issued a single wiretap order that led to "real-time intercepts" of 3.29 million cell phone conversations, according to ZDNet's Zack Whittaker in a June 30, 2017, article. The result: No incriminating evidence discovered, no arrests, no convictions, and taxpayers on the hook for $335,000 incurred to run the wiretap operation.
Whittaker quotes Albert Gidari, directory of privacy at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, as saying, "I'd love to see the probable cause affidavit for that one and wonder what the court thought on its 10 day reviews when zip came in.... I'm not surprised by the results because on average, a very very low percentage of conversations are incriminating, and a very very low percent results in conviction."
Social media use can be bad for your mental health: I don't mind telling you, I'm having a bad day. Maybe I can blame it on Twitter -- can't blame Facebook because I haven't logged on in weeks. In a June 30, 2017, post on Forbes, Alice G. Walton summarizes the results of six different studies on the effect of social media on our mental well-being.
The American Academy of Pediatrics blames social media for an increase in cyber-bullying and "Facebook depression" among children and teens. Research conducted by Nottingham Trent University described "Facebook Addiction Disorder," which the researchers claim includes the tell-tale signs of addiction: neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood modifying experiences, and tolerating/concealing the addictive behavior.
Other studies of social media users identified withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop using the services; less happiness and life satisfaction; and, ironically, more social isolation due to the "comparison factor." In fact, seeing how much fun our online friends are having can evoke feelings of jealousy, according to another study. Lastly, having lots of friends on Facebook doesn't translate into a strong support network. When it comes to giving you a boost when you need it most, real-life friends top the virtual variety hands down.
Public Wi-Fi is popular despite the dangers: A favorite tool of computer criminals is hacking public Wi-Fi, in large part because doing so is relatively easy. Luke Bencie writes in a May 3, 2017, article on the Harvard Business Review that "dozens" of online tutorials describe how to break into people's devices via public Wi-Fi networks.
Bencie describes how researchers at security vendor Kaspersky Labs discovered a criminal operation that targeted prominent guests staying at luxury hotels by infiltrating the hotels' wireless networks to download malware in the guise of software updates. The scheme ran for more than seven years, and the data-stealing malware often remained undetected on the victims' computers for many months.
Your firewall and antivirus software won't protect you from an unsecured public Wi-Fi network. Bencie recommends that you never sign into financial or other sensitive sites while using a public network, that you use a virtual private network and two-factor authentication, and that you deactivate the automatic connection feature in your phone's Wi-Fi settings. Bencie's best bit of advice is his last one: Don't use any public Wi-Fi. Instead, rely on your cell carrier's data plan.