Keep online trackers at bay without breaking a sweat
The use of ad blockers is forecast to increase from 16 percent of all U.S. smartphone users in 2016 (44 million people) to 37 percent in 2020 (100 million people). That's according to a study by Optimal.com and Wells Fargo reported by BI Intelligence in May 2016.
Advertisers now focus on getting their ads past the blockers. Many also offer subscriptions as an alternative to ads. However, you don't hear many sites or advertisers offering to stop collecting information about you when they interact with you online. That's where the real money is for the online universe.
It would appear efforts to offer a "do not track" option are stalled. The most recent entry on the Electronic Privacy Information Center's Online Tracking and Behavioral Profiling page is dated July 29, 2014. I guess people have more pressing matters to be concerned about.
That's a shame, because consumer privacy is worth protecting. The least we can expect is openness about what is being collected and how the information is being used. There are a few things we can do to deter online tracking, several of which I described in the March 29, 2017, Weekly. (I'll save you a click by reiterating my advice to install the Electronic Frontier Foundation's free Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere browser extensions.)
Here are a couple more ways to get a grip on the information you're sharing with Google, Facebook, and an untold number of unknown third parties:
Prevent web trackers from fingerprinting your system
Tracking cookies are so 2012. Who needs a separate file placed in your browser to keep tabs on your web activities? Especially when you can use an alternative tracking method that is more invasive and nearly invisible.
The Weeklies for August 9, 2016, and May 25, 2016, described various "fingerprinting" techniques used by websites and ad networks to create a record of everything you do online. The unique set of fonts on your machine, your battery status indicator, and other attributes of your computer or phone are used to identify you and create a log of your online behavior.
FiveThirtyEight's Jody Avirgan spoke with leading privacy researchers about the privacy threats posed by fingerprinting. Even if you shrug your shoulders at the prospect of third parties being privy to your online world, Princeton University researcher Arvind Narayanan explains the chilling effect pervasive surveillance has on our behavior.
According to Narayanan and other privacy researchers, people are less likely to talk about controversial subjects when they believe they are being spied on. The result is a loss of our "intellectual freedom," according to Narayanan. As Narayanan points out, progressive ideas such as marriage equality are usually unpopular when first proposed. Only through open debate and the free exchange of ideas can change be realized.
Two free tools Avirgan recommends to combat fingerprinting are the Ghostery browser add-on that identifies and blocks trackers, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Panopticlick, which tests your browser's tracking defenses. (For what it's worth, all three of my browsers -- Firefox, Safari, and Opera -- failed the Panopticlick tracking test.)
It's still a good idea to block third-party cookies and delete all cookies each time you close your browser. The September 8, 2015, Weekly explains how to do so in Firefox, Google Chrome, and Internet Explorer (now named "Edge").
Manage and delete location history on your iPhone
The Global Positioning System is a key feature of many smartphone apps. Not all the programs that use GPS to track your position need to know your whereabouts to function, however. The apps often have nothing to do with location, yet selling the location history the products collect is one way developers make money from their products, especially those that are offered free of charge.
In a June 15, 2017, article on Techish, Jennifer Jolly describes how to access the "Frequent Locations" list stored automatically in your iPhone: Open Settings, choose Privacy > Location Services, scroll to and select System Services, and choose Frequent Locations in the list that appears.
When you choose one of the locations on the list, it is shown on a map along with the date and time you were there. As interesting as it is to see a record of how much time I spent watching my grandchildren play baseball and soccer, it's more than a little creepy knowing that Apple (and who-knows-who-else) has such a detailed record of my whereabouts.
If you prefer not to let your iPhone maintain a log of your travels, you can toggle the Frequent Locations feature off. Alternatively, you can choose the Clear History option that is shown at the bottom of the location list. The same goes for the dozen-or-so other options listed under Location Services, although disabling all of these services will render useless such handy apps as Find My iPhone, Waze, and Emergency SOS.
For most people, their home will be their most frequent location. On my iPhone, the record of when I was home and when I was out reached back nearly two months. Is this information I would choose to share with Apple or anyone else? (Note that Apple has one of the best privacy records of all the tech giants.)
Instructions for managing and deleting location history on Android phones and other Google products are provided on the Google support site.
'Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast': So wrote William Congreve more than 300 years ago. Scientists are lining up to agree, according to Outside's Eric Killelea in a June 20, 2017, article. One study from 2014 found that after hearing a custom playlist, people were able to generate more power during a 30-second interval than those who did not listen to music. Another study by researchers at Montreal's McGill University published in 2013 made a connection between listening to pleasurable music and the brain's release of dopamine, which Killelea calls the "happiness neurotransmitter."
Just last year, a professor of music psychology at Freie University in Berlin claims to have shown the cortisol released when people listened to music helped them "react [to] and overcome stressful situations." Not just any music will do, according to the researchers. The songs have to engage the individual listener to have the beneficial effect.
However, people may be engaged by songs they wouldn't have expected to catch their ear. One researcher cites the example of a subject who claimed not to like Justin Bieber, yet when one of Bieber's songs was played to him, the physiological measurements indicated that he was "emotionally engaged." Same thing happens to me when I hear the Turtles.
Some types of data collection can save lives: Not everyone is a fan of self-driving cars. Whether the vehicle is under the control of a human or umpteen computers, modern cars collect a great deal of data. The Future of Privacy Forum has released an infographic entitled "Data and the Connected Car" that shows a smart car's data-generating devices and the type of data that flows through its "data ecosystems."
Earlier this year the FPF released a consumer guide, "Personal Data in Your Car" (pdf) that goes into more detail about the kinds of data being generated by in-car systems. It also offers tips for erasing private data before selling your car and other privacy-preserving measures.
'We're gonna need a bigger website': The New York Times undertook the gargantuan task of compiling all of 45's lies since he took the oath of office. The result is the succinctly named June 23, 2017, article, "Trump's Lies," by David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson.
One tall tale that doesn't qualify for the list is reported by the Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold in a June 27, 2017, article. In at least five of 45's country clubs, a framed copy of a Time magazine cover is displayed. The cover is dated March 1, 2009, and depicts 45 along with glowing praise for his television show, The Apprentice.
First problem: There was no issue of Time dated March 1, 2009. Second problem: There are several obvious design differences between a real Time cover and the purported cover. Third problem: The barcode on the cover is identical to the barcode used in a graphic-design tutorial for Photoshop. According to Fahrenthold, 45 takes great pride in his many Time covers. In January, he bragged in a speech at CIA headquarters to have the most such covers in history.
He was lying. Richard Nixon holds that distinction. Before entering politics, 45 was on Time's cover once, in 1989.
Is another global financial crash at hand? One group of central bankers believes so. City A.M.'s Jasper Jolly reports in a June 25, 2017, article that the end of the current growth period could come "with a vengeance." That's a quote from Claudio Borio, an official for the Bankers for International Settlements (BIS), whose annual report was recently released.
Jolly describes the BIS as "the central bank for central banks." A major trigger for the next worldwide financial meltdown is the massive debt load of China and other emerging markets, according to the BIS report. Corporate debt in China has doubled since 2007 to 166 percent of GDP, while consumer debt has increased to 44 percent of GDP. An "early warning indicator" for the BIS is the credit-to-GDP gap; China, Hong Kong, and Thailand are "extended far beyond other major economies," according to Jolly.
Hold on to your interest rates!