Updating Again Soon

I realized it’s been two years since I updated this blog, but with the recent events regarding data, privacy, and social media, I feel it’s important to dust this place off and start writing again. Stickied to the top of Robots Nobots is a post I wrote four years ago about the dangers of Social Logins and how your information, along with all your friends, is being bought and sold simply by clicking a small, convenient button. Seems it’s gotten worse since then with the explosion of Apps asking for “permissions” before you get to use them.

These topics are relevant. They will always be relevant. To anyone who happens upon this blog, I hope you enjoy my content.

Buzzword: Clickbait

What is clickbait? It’s a term used to describe sensationalist headlines used specifically for generating traffic. The “bait” part of this Internet portmanteau comes from “bait and switch”: you are promised one thing but given something else after you’ve paid. While on the surface it may seem harmless, the reason clickbait exists is to generate traffic and revenue. More traffic means more ads may be loaded, which in turn generates money for the host site. You might’ve seen something like this all over Facebook:

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Rather than a simple explanation of what the video is about in the title, it instead uses a hyperbolic statement. Most of these videos are uploaded to Youtube, but take a look at the URL; rather than a direct link, the host site, Distractify, embeds the video link so that it can use its own titling scheme. The actual name of the video is “Natural Pools – Natural Pool selfbuild”. So why do this? Why jump through so many hoops just to get you to visit their site to load ads most people will probably never see or click on? Think back to my earlier post on our insidious little friend, the tracking cookie. Each time your computer loads an ad or website, tracking cookies are used to gather information about you and your activity; this data can include geographical locations, other sites you’ve visited, your email address, and if you choose to log in via your social networks, ANY AND ALL DATA YOU’VE CHOSEN TO LIST AS PUBLIC ON YOUR PROFILES.

So how many tracking cookies can you expect to see from your average site? Usually 1-3, which is the case with popular social sites like Reddit and Youtube. How many are on clickbait sites like Distractify? According to a handy add-on called Ghostery, there are 12 tracking cookies on that page alone. TWELVE!

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Three of them are overtly advertising, four are social widgets, and the remaining five are analytics trackers – cookies used to study your behavior online. They will gather information that affects what ads are shown to you, what videos are suggested to you at a later date, the types of emails you receive, all with the main purpose of manipulating your behavior. If you think Facebook’s recent psychological “study” was offensive and wrong, trackers and advertisers have been doing it for years, and right under our noses! Here are some browser add-ons that will make your life a lot simpler. If you have any to add, please share:

Adblock Plus: Prevents ads and trackers from loading when you visit a website. Also blocks ads on Youtube so you can enjoy the video without being interrupted. Note: these are indiscriminate, so if you want to support your favorite broadcaster, you’ll have to manually turn it off for them to get ad revenues.

Ghostery: Tracks the trackers attempting to load on a website, blocks them, and gives you a description of what they do and who they are. Highly recommended. Updates frequently.

Lightbeam (Formerly Collusion): Shows you the third party trackers connected to any site you’ve allowed cookies to be installed. Wonderful tool.

Anonymity – How to Keep Yourself Safe

Most people act on convenience and habit when it comes to matters of the internet, and that common but flawed philosophy holds true for some of their most vital information. This includes usernames. Sure, it seems harmless enough at first; it’s not your real name, and there’s nothing about it that indicates who you really are or where you live, right? Not necessarily. Taking on a pseudonym does not guarantee anonymity. In fact, it can be used to track you down with great efficiency.

Why did you choose your username? Some will say that they like it, or that it’s easy to remember. Others will say that it’s the username they’ve always used, and they see no reason to add a new bit of information to remember along with passwords and the websites to which they belong. And there you have your first misstep. People often reuse usernames, give or a take a few letters or numbers depending on the availability of the name, and when that username becomes associated with your “main accounts,” your information becomes available to whomever has an interest in finding you. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

Say name is Susie Michaels, and your username is kittybird999. It’s a name you’ve always had, and you’ve used it in multiple places. Nobody has to know Susie is kittybird999, and she’s never told anyone, so her information is safe…or so you can assume. What if Susie Michaels has a Facebook account, and listed as her Skype name is kittybird999? Or that she went for a custom FB URL that ended in kittybird999? If Susie never thought to set her profile on Private, any and all information on her Facebook account, including pictures and wall posts, would be available for anyone to see. It doesn’t end there. What if Susie has been on the internet for many years, and her accounts and username date trail back to that long-forgotten Myspace page? How about Livejournal? Yes, they still exist and will continue to exist, and their contents are searchable on Google. Any place you’ve ever shared private or intimate details about yourself and your life becomes an open book, and that’s a very scary thought. Can you imagine anyone looking back at what you were like as a teenager?

Always be wary about where you want different aspects of your life mix. Personally I have at least three personae: work, personal, and internet. The second two sometimes intersect – an inevitable part of our evolving social structure – but my work life is completely separate. This allows me to control what I want potential employers to see; in essence, it allows me to create a work/personal persona: one that highlights my strengths as a candidate while keeping possible “red flags” from my personal life hidden.

First, it helps to have a nickname by which your friends know you. That way you can keep your personal online accounts open and candid while your real name can stay immaculate. It’s understandable that you may not want to maintain more than just a single account for convenience’s sake, but it’s a very small price to pay to keep your identity safe from prying eyes. Next, keep your usernames and account information separate. Duplicate data will practically destroy any attempt to stay hidden. And finally, Privacy Settings are your best friend. Keep your personal accounts private and viewable only by those who have your permission. It takes 10 minutes to change and customize your settings, so you have no excuse not to do it.