There is no doubt that due to advances in technology and manufacturing we are able to enjoy devices that just a few years ago would have cost a small fortune. Remember when a 40″ big-screen TV cost well over $10k? I have a 42″ flat screen that cost me literally a fraction of that eight years ago, and today I can buy a brand new 42″ TV for a quarter of what I paid for it in 2011. But there is something else offsetting costs on many of today’s shiniest devices, and guess who’s paying the difference? You are!
You should not be surprised.
If you’ve done any TV shopping lately, you’ve most certainly come across numerous “smart TV’s” from all the big manufacturers, including Vizio, a very popular and reasonably priced brand that is also somewhat notorious for tracking viewing habits without consent. Since its very public settlement with the FTC, Vizio has been much more up front with its tracking, and supposedly prides itself on being the most transparent manufacturer about this practice. The company’s CTO openly admitted that tracking viewing habits (among many other things) and reselling that data to advertisers is part of its long-term profitability strategy, primarily because people do not buy new TV’s every year, or even every other year, like they do smartphones.
In previous blogs, we’ve talked about computers made affordable through a similar practice of offsetting manufacturing costs by installing bloatware on your new computer in the hopes you’ll buy something after you just spent several hundred dollars. The fact that this practice is still common even today means that it does work. Thanks to devices that are always online, making money for a manufacturer doesn’t have to end at the device sale. As a matter of fact, it’s just the starting point.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Surprisingly, most people don’t realize that the popular idiom, “The Devil is in the detail” is actually derived from the more encouraging phrase, “God is in the detail,” i.e. pay attention to the small things as they are important. Both adages are more relevant now than ever, particularly because the average human is now daily agreeing to privacy policies with which, if they were to actually read the fine print, would probably not agree to at all. Such is the case with the numerous policies you are “accepting” when you install apps on your smartphone. What policy acceptance? The one hidden behind a small pop-up that says your data will be shared with other parties to improve your experience, or some other vaguely worded reminder that you are sharing data with a company in exchange for the free (or sometimes paid) use of an app.
What this means for you
“Yeah, yeah, I know, they are watching my every move,” my clients have said to me, “I’ve got nothing to hide.” Or, “It’s a small price to pay for this wonderful app/service/game.” Except most aren’t aware of how much data is being tracked, or what it can used for, aside from advertising. If you’d like a small taste of how this data is being assembled and the level of detail it can offer into everyone’s daily routines, read this article from the NY Times, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret” – it’s a very easy read and has some nice interactive visual aids to bring the point home. Despite its approachable tone, the content of the article should be unsettling for everyone. For example, when asked to explain why their prompt to grant access to very precise coordinate data and permission to share with 16 companies was instead presented as a way to “recommend local teams and players that are relevant to you,” a spokesperson for the app responded (emphasis ours):
Let’s be honest here: I’m in this business up to my neck, and even I don’t read those privacy policies, but only because I know exactly what I’m trading for the use of a “free” app. You have a much more relatable excuse: “Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat.” You are not wrong, but in the pursuit of better deals, faster commutes, cheaper gas or just weather updates, we have traded a precious commodity: privacy. And lest you forget, privacy is not about hiding secrets, but about not wanting to share everything about your life with complete strangers who only view you as a profit center. This is yet another glimpse of the elephant on the internet around which everyone is still carefully tip-toeing. Make sure you are paying attention!
Image courtesy of TAW4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve seen me describe the current state of security in a variety of colorful ways, but my favorite analogy is the one where I liken ourselves to jugglers with many objects in the air and with more being tossed in every minute by hackers and criminals. We lose if we drop a single item, but there is no “win” condition for juggling. If anyone has enough hands and arms to keep a lot of things in the air, it should be Facebook, and they have a lot going on, but in the end, they have come up short on another promise: transparency in sponsored advertising. Facebook’s never ending torrent of fake news was supposed to be somewhat dampened by a tool rolled out in May of this year called “Paid for by” which was built to bring some accountability to Facebook publishing tools heavily abused by political trolls leading up to the 2016 US elections, and surrounding numerous other political events since then.
Transparency or Lip Service?
Just ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Vice.com investigators, through the “Paid for by” tool on Facebook, applied to purchase ads on behalf of all 100 US Senators. All 100 applications were approved, despite the ads being shared from fake political groups built specifically to test Facebook’s transparency tool, and the very obvious fact that Vice investigators are clearly not actual spokespeople for any sitting US Senator. The same tool also allowed the Vice team to buy ads on behalf of Vice President Mike Pence and the Islamic State, but curiously enough, not Hillary Clinton. Based on the amount of effort the Vice team exerted to circumvent the “Paid for by” verification tool, it’s clear that Facebook put an equal amount of effort into building this tool, i.e. virtually none. It’s unclear if the “Paid for by” tool was a token effort put up by Facebook to appease shareholders and lawmakers, or if the problem of fake news on Facebook is truly unsolvable, but if an organization as big and as powerful as Facebook can’t (or won’t) solve this problem, the only other solution is to completely ignore it as a source of news.
And that’s the other problem with elephants on the internet: because of their size, they are hard to ignore.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Under the auspice of saving battery life on laptops, Google just made good on their promise in June of this year to pause Flash elements on webpages loaded in their browser, Chrome. Though they don’t outright name what elements they are targeting *cough* advertising *cough*, as of September 1, Chrome will, by default, no longer autoplay Flash-based media on any page. If you want to punch that monkey to win a prize, you will have to click on the advertisement to get it to dance around on your screen. Now before you break out the champagne, this certainly doesn’t mean the end of web advertising by any stretch of the imagination – many of the ads you see are HTML5-based (including Google’s own AdWords platform) – but seeing as Chrome has 50% of the browser marketshare, it’s a safe bet that many, many advertisers will stop using Flash as a delivery mechanism, and given Flash’s long history of security weaknesses, this is a good thing.
What this means for you:
If you’re using Chrome as your main web browser, make sure it’s updated to the latest version, and start breathing the Flash-paused air. Firefox users have been enjoying this particular state for a little while now, as Mozilla put Flash in permanent time-out last month. If you are still using Internet Explorer (and many, many folks are required to because of various corporate applications) you can also experience a Flash-paused existence by following the steps outlined in this article.
Most importantly, if your website was designed with Flash elements (as many were up to about 2 years ago), it’s time to refresh your online presence to marginalize or eliminate the dependency on Flash. Its days are well and truly numbered.
I can count on one hand the number of people that have said to me, “There’s not enough stuff on Facebook!” without using any fingers (and she was new to Facebook). More often, I hear, “I can’t keep up,” or “I have to sort through a lot of fluff to find anything good.” According to an opinion piece published in Business Insider, Facebook appears to be collapsing under the weight of its market dominance that is only exacerbated by the ease of posting anything to their stream from just about any device. So take this fire hose of updates from everyone you know and add video advertisements that will automatically play as they appear (sound muted…for now).
Yep, Facebook is adding commercials to your already overflowing news stream.
What this means for you:
If you weren’t already avoiding Facebook, in-line video advertisements might just push you over the edge. Advertisers seem to be salivating at the prospect, with some analysts predicting 1-day 30-second spots costing millions of dollars, but with the potential of reaching billions of viewers. Seeing as Facebook can segment their users into just about any size demographic target, they may start carving up the ad space into more affordable chunks, giving us the social media equivalent of late-night cable community channel or local TV station commercials. I’m only guessing, but this might raise the banality factor a bit too high for most folks, and Facebook could continue to see an exodus of its highly-prized 18-24 demographic as they move on to more focused and less spammy social media platforms like SnapChat, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Have you ever opened up Facebook and noticed an ad popping up on the right hand side that seems to be eerily similar to something you were looking at/shopping for on a completely different website? Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Facebook isn’t reading your mind – instead it’s reading your browser history for behavior that aligns with one of the thousands of different ads it offers on its new Facebook Exchange (FBX) advertising platform. This particular method is called “retargeting” and is similar to technologies used by Google and Yahoo in their ubiquitous ad platforms.
Prior to the launch of FBX, Facebook sold ads based upon its extensive demographic database – advertisers could target their ads across dozens of traits including geography, age, sex, marital-status, etc. – all based upon the data that it’s 1 billion users freely share with the service in their quest to stay connected with friends and family. This method allowed Facebook to generate nearly $5 billion in ad revenue a year, but since the launch of FBX and the use of retargeting, Facebook’s new shareholders have at least one piece of good news: FBX retargeting ads are proving to be much more effective that ads sold around all the demographic data it’s been gathering for years, which means that advertisers can expect to start paying a lot more for those clicks.
What this means for you:
Let’s face it: internet advertisements are here to stay, especially since people like getting things for “free.” The savvy among you know that nothing in life is ever free, and obviously we pay for these free services with our eyeballs, and on occasion, our patronage of an advertiser. As the folks at Facebook, Google and Yahoo continue to improve the accuraccy of their advertising platforms, you can count on ads will becoming so finely tuned to their viewers, it will be like the internet was a window on our heart’s very own desires. There are add-ons you can install in Firefox and Chrome (check out the ever-popular AdBlock Plus) that will block/hide advertisements, but as websites become increasingly dependent on advertising revenue to continue delivering “free” services they will continue to find ways to make viewing advertising unavoidable. In some cases, using an adblocker will make some sites completely unusable without a lot of fiddling with settings and whitelists. If you insist on drawing a hard line in the sand about being targeted, disabling cookies will go a long way to making it impossible for sites like Facebook to track your browsing behaviors, but it will also make surfing the web a constant barrage of password prompts, preference setting and other annoyances that cookies made bearable. You can also look at services like PrivacyFix which can help you understand and control the privacy settings for the more popular sites that track your browsing history.
Google’s New Advertising Shill: You!
MetaFilter user Andrew Lewis coined a phrase that has become the rallying cry for internet privacy watchdogs over the past 3 years, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” He was speaking of Digg’s redesign in 2010 in which the emphasis of the site shifted away from user-centric content curation and towards a model that was clearly intended to monetize Digg’s large userbase. Since then, the phrase has been applied to many services, including the 800-lb gorilla of free internet services, Facebook, and dozens of other social media sites that use advertising money to fund their “free” services. Savvy users will note that Google has been leveraging this model on a less obvious (but no less profitable) basis ever since Google search arrived and Gmail extended its tendrils into millions of users’ daily online existence.
What this means for you:
If you have a Google account, then you are automatically opted in to this advertising model. To opt out, you must go to your Account settings under the Google+ section, and look for the “Shared Endorsements” link to disable your participation in the program. If you actually go do this, you’ll note that Google has written quite the argument as to why you might want to stay opted-in: “Your friends might not be able to benefit from your wisdom.” Depending on your level of participation in online reviewing/commenting/rating, participating in this program may be no big deal, or a very big deal. Either way, you should consider the implications for your online brand, whether current or planned, and the impact on your privacy, especially if your face and words could start appearing on thousands of monitors around the world.