back to article Privacy pathology: It's time for the users to gather a little data – evidence

Almost exactly a month ago, we noted a splendid piece of academic research into Google's data-gathering and consent practises. According to the research paper by Trinity College Dublin computer science professor Douglas Leith, the company had been gathering far too much user data from core messaging apps, and the forensic …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    I applaud the spirit of this article

    I am totally in agreement with the idea that privacy protection needs to become a branch of Science and treated in the same open and sharing way.

    As much as I like the idea, I will not, however, buy an Alexa, or stop using NoScript and uBlock Origin and thus, I will not participate in giving "the enemy" data just so I can find out how they use it.

    I prefer the concept of castle walls and drawbridges. I just hope "the enemy" is not in the process of creating the cannon.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: I applaud the spirit of this article

      I just hope "the enemy" is not in the process of creating the cannon.

      Created, patented, and hidden away until such times as they can properly monetise it.

    2. Clausewitz4.0 Bronze badge

      Re: I applaud the spirit of this article

      Sometimes giving data is not a willing decision.

      There are more technologies than javascript and cameras, like nanotechnology.

      1. Snake Silver badge

        Re: data not given willingly

        There are still many things you can do but you must take things into your own hands. You can use a JS blocker on your browser; on mobile I recently discovered NoRootFirewall and it is absolutely brilliant, if there was an award for "Best Android App" it should be nominated. I have Facebook and Doubleclick blocked globally, and Google (via the sneaky domain) blocked per-app when not absolutely necessary for operation (read: the vast majority of the time).

    3. b0llchit Silver badge

      Re: I applaud the spirit of this article

      The cannon has already been created and fired many times.

      See the smartphone. The ultimate spy device and more and more forced upon us in every day life. Have you also met the services that require a smartphone app? Yes, that is where the cannon has fired and breached the fence.

      1. Mike 137 Silver badge

        Re: I applaud the spirit of this article

        " Have you also met the services that require a smartphone app? "

        Increasingly, including online purchases, registering to attend events, and in some cases even voting.

        As the Vogon guard stated almost half a century ago "resistance is useless".

        1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

          Re: I applaud the spirit of this article

          Nice airlock you got here. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Resistance is useless ???

          Resistance in the obvious way may well be useless, but what if people accidentally/actively (take your pick) started to pollute the data being collected, thereby rendering it increasngly worthless.

          Something similar to e.g. "trackmenot", perhaps, but not just for polluting web search histories.

          Trackmenot dates back to around 2006 so by now is a relatively mature concept, but appears to have been a well kept secret throughout its life.

          1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

            Re: Resistance is useless ???

            but what if people accidentally/actively (take your pick) started to pollute the data being collected, thereby rendering it increasngly worthless.

            A friend and I used to have pretty long international telephone calls (when he lived abroad) about 20 years ago. We used to start off discussing explosives and various alphabet agencies before starting on the more important stuff.

  2. Arthur the cat Silver badge


    To devalue the algorithms feed them random information. Get an RPi to download random pages from Wikipedia, newspapers, tractor manufacturers :-), etc and read them out via text to speech while you're out.

    1. ShadowSystems

      Re: Chaffing

      Lock an Alexa device in an anechoic chamber with a text-to-speach device fed all the posts from A Man From Mars 1. Please record how long before the Alexa device commits Seppuku.

      Then repeat the experiment with another Alexa device & more posts from AMFM1. Record how long before the Alexa implodes.

      Keep the cycle going until the entirety of Amazon's Alexa division has gone insane & started howling & flinging feces at each other.

      I'd considered using Vogon poetry, but my TTS devices threatened to kill me in my sleep if I tried, so no Vogon poetry for my screen reader. =-Jp

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Agent K was right

        Human thought is a contagious disease, and we could do little worse than make them keep listening to actual humans.

        You want to give the Alexa team nightmares? Just hook them to all the American talk radio feeds and then take away the off switch. Just rig the room with flamethrowers first.

        Anything that survives when you jump past Kafka-esque evolutionary pressure and go to strait up Nietzschian selection, well if you don't succeed in killing it the first time, you may need stronger medicine.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Chaffing

      Won't work. Alexa only has to "map" the room with high frequency sound to realize there is no one listening.

      Your other house security devices, cameras / motion sensors will confirm there is nobody home.

    3. NoneSuch Silver badge

      Re: Chaffing

      One amendment; read out loud to an Alexa / Bixby / Cortana...

      @AC I have a dog so Alexa can track her.

    4. MonkeyJuice

      Re: Chaffing

      I think you'll find the Claas Dominator to be quite the envy.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A noble effort, but it's tilting at windmills

    at least as far as being a viable method of ensuring compliance and exposing bad actors is concerned. There aren't even thousands of people doing research at this level. Even if we open it up as it's own major, and offer full free-ride scholarships for everyone who can complete the program, we won't be able to train up enough people to hold even the big fish accountable this way.

    Sure, they will score some hits, write some excellent papers, and shine a light on bad actors. But while it's work that very much needs doing, it's a candle in the middle of the amazon on a moonless night.

    If you want to deal with the problem you are going to need more leverage. The people doing this work need a more level playing field to keep up, which is why we should force these companies to give open access to outside technology auditors. If the auditors don't find anything, leave them under and NDA for what they saw, but if they can articulate concerns with how the company is operating, they would raise a red flag directly with regulators and trigger an enforcement action. Hoping that brilliant people will be able to retro-engineer a black box is rolling rocks uphill for no reason.

    Yes, googlebet and metaface won't like it. Why should we care?

    And why are we still taking Suckerburg's word for anything, or letting them claim they are in such internal disarray they can't say how they are using peoples data or how their own systems work?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A noble effort, but it's tilting at windmills

      It is however better to light a candle than to sit in the dark. Even if that is in the amazon. Got to start somewhere..

      1. Evil Scot

        Re: A noble effort, but it's tilting at windmills

        Even better to light a flamethrower.

        PiHole blocking outside the app.

    2. MonkeyJuice

      Re: A noble effort, but it's tilting at windmills

      While I agree, lawmakers are fixated on series of tubes, and let's face it, one of the Brexit benefits is tossing your consumer protections in the bin. Without strong, evidence based pushback, steering that behemoth becomes even more intractable.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Big Data.....Metadata analysis.......Unknown snooping........

    Plaudits to the academics.

    But the same sort of analysis is not available when we start to consider the snooping being done by certain other large organisations:

    - For example -- building the "social network" of phone users by tracking the metadata: Who is each user phoning? Who is making calls to each user?

    This is a phone example, but the same sort of metadata snooping can be done with Twitter, FB, WhatsApp......and so on.

    A good example of the intersection of phone metadata and Twitter feeds:


    I had to laugh.........the biter bit!!!!!

    But it really isn't funny................this is the s**t that's going on all the time.....and the link shows us only the tip of the iceberg!!

    ......but back to the academics in the article........when will they get to review the snooping being done in Fort Meade or Cheltenham?

  5. Roger Kynaston Silver badge

    Good to see academia being promoted

    There is too much assumption about universities not being good places to do research these days. I only hope that they can still get funding to carry on this sort of work and shine a light on how much "they" know about us plebs.

  6. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    The evolution of the Internet

    Initially everyone reading El Reg today were just hunter gatherers roaming around the Internet looking for data and access but not finding much, just enough to keep us entertained after hours of work hunting at 300 baud. Over years everything has evolved, now the entire population of hunter gatherers has been replaced by farmers like Google, working at gigabites (sic) - so we're all just the farmers food now.

  7. Cuddles

    Not so big a deal?

    "Talk to Alexa about something, the academics found, and the auction price for related advertising opportunities goes up."

    Why was any research required here? Assume for the sake of argument that Alexa works exactly as advertised - no false activations or sending your conversations to random people or anything like that. It's essentially just a speech-to-text device. Instead of going to Amazon's website and typing in "I would like to buy some ham", you just shout to your living room "Alexa, I would like to buy some ham". Now Amazon knows you are interested in buying ham. First, they return search results (vaguely) relating to ham. Then, they pass this information to their advertising system so that you can be targetted by people attempting to sell pig products. At no point is the input device used particularly relevant, other than possibly as another data point for potential targetting.

    Obviously if you don't like the very concept of targetted advertising, this is a problem. But the point is that Alexa isn't doing anything different. If you are happy searching Amazon for a product, Amazon will use that search to target you with adverts. Whether you use your fingers or mouth to enter the search terms doesn't change how the process works. So why is it supposed to be a surprise, or even particularly interesting, that Amazon uses information you've given through Alexa? Of course they do, and they use it in exactly the same way as all the other information they've collected about you. These researchers haven't revealed some shady shenanigans Amazon is getting up to, they've just confirmed that yes, targetted advertising is a thing that exists.

    Personally I haven't used Amazon for years because of precisely this sort of thing. But if you deliberately buy a device that exists solely to give Amazon information, and then you use it specifically in order to give Amazon information, you don't get to be surprised that they are, in fact, collecting and using that information. If you go out of your way to tell Amazon you want ham, then next time you visit them they will sell advertising space to ham-sellers. This is not new information, and has nothing to do with whether you use Alexa or not.

    1. NoneSuch Silver badge

      Re: Not so big a deal?

      "Talk to Alexa about something, the academics found, and the auction price for related advertising opportunities goes up."

      Go shopping for online medical insurance, get a quote. Google AIDS research then go back to the same site.

    2. Richocet

      Re: Not so big a deal?

      The article means the bid price of advertisements for that topic, not the price of items you (as a consumer) could buy related to that topic. What that means is for the companies purchasing advertisements from Amazon , the price goes up. I'm interested to know which platforms are affected by the increased prices.

      As a person who works in marketing, this means that if I have a meeting with colleagues to discuss our advertising purchasing strategy, and Alexa is listening, the prices will increases for all the keywords and topics that we discussed bidding on/using. I'm not sure what law that is breaking, but it is the equivalent of insider trading.

      The big internet companies need to be careful here. It is risky to bite the hand that feeds them.

      1. Richocet

        Re: Not so big a deal?

        Further note: the process of purchasing advertising keywords is meant to be an auction, so it is concerning in a different way that the price goes up for those keywords just before someone plans to purchase them. Indicating that the pricing mechanism isn't an auction. One person talking about a topic should not be able to influence the auction prices of a billion+ dollar advertising market.

  8. Barry Rueger

    My life as an algorithm

    Given the stream of inexplicable suggestions, promoted items, suggested posts and such that flood my accounts on Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter, I honestly don't understand how anyone makes money on-line.

    Do stupid, gullible people just have more money?

    I have never let Google or Amazon listen to my voice, in large part because I can see no way they would be accurate enough to be truly useful.

    Add to that being in France, and seeing how horribly these companies mangle foreign languages, and it all seems terribly pointless.

    I simply have concluded that these company's AI, machine learning, and algorithms are all much, much less effective than is claimed, and that these corporations are lying through their teeth when they claim otherwise.

    And of course since it's all secret there is no way to test any of this for accuracy.

    1. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: My life as an algorithm

      The operative word in this article is "keyword". Its a bit like credit scoring where your entire life is reduced to a number using a secret algorithm. Credit scores are a form of self-fulfilling prophecy but at least the system parameters are well known. Life keywords, or whatever they're called, don't actually need to reflect attributes of a person's life, there merely has to be a belief they do by the participants in this commercial ecosystem.

      Personally, I haven't seen a single instance yet where the advertisements pushed at me truly reflect my interests. Where content is curated for me the result is just downright annoying -- its obviously working off a model of someone that's superficially like me but its not really me.

    2. Richocet

      Re: My life as an algorithm

      Billboards, radio, and TV advertising are incredibly expensive. YouTube, Facebook and Google offer relatively cheaper advertising.

      So even if it doesn't work perfectly, it is still attractive to use digital advertising rather than the traditional advertising channels.

      Billboards are only targeted to a location, so it is very easy to do better in terms of whom digital advertisements are shown to.

      The return on investment for digital advertising has remained higher than traditional advertising, despite the cost of digital advertising increasing a lot over the last decade.

  9. fidodogbreath

    the politicians are [...] hard of hearing.

    No, they have selective hearing: excellent when money is talking, stone deaf to anyone or anything else.

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