Saturday, May 4, 2013

Constitutional Confetti (non-knitting)

For the past umpity-ump years, I've started my day by fixing a cup of coffee, then flipping on my computer to peruse Google News. I then zipped over to my iGoogle page, which contained an embedded Google Reader widget. Last year, Google announced that they would be ceasing iGoogle in November of this year. I found this profoundly upsetting--part of my morning routine would need some rearrangement. I finally switched over to Netvibes, a service that is fairly similar to iGoogle. In some ways, it's even better than iGoogle, but lacks the compact Reader widget that I have come to rely on to quickly peruse the news from the 200+ blogs to which I currently subscribe.

Thus, when Google announced a few months ago that they would cease Google Reader...well, I can tell you that those precious early-morning coffee-sipping moments had suddenly become a vacuum begging to be filled by something...anything...that worked as well as Reader. Since those early days of iGoogleness though, I've started flipping open my iPad more often than my laptop. I've found that Flipboard (no pun intended) is a pleasant companion for my coffee, and Newsify is a reasonably good substitute for Reader.

All of this searching for substitutes got me thinking about Google in general. Like many services, it's become more social, proffering sites such as Google+ as a way to force interaction. Not being especially comfortable with this idea, I took a hard look at the Google apps on both my iPad and my laptop, and frankly, didn't like what I saw.

I had installed Chrome, the Google browser last year, but never use it, because the cookie controls are terrible. In Firefox, I can disallow cookies, allow them for a session, temporarily allow them for a site, and easily manage cookies globally or on a site-to-site basis. I am uncomfortable with sites that require cookies to do something as simple as browse their pages, and the inability to control these little bits of tracking crumbs turned me off of Chrome.

I became so uncomfortable with this tracking stuff that I installed a Firefox add-on called DoNotTrackMe. The icon sits quietly in the toolbar, and when you click on it, it tells you how many tracking attempts it has blocked. To my utter horror, after a few months of use, the information popup told me that the add-in had blocked 20,000 trackers. After a year of use, I've earned my second Platinum Medal--each one worth 50,000 trackers. If the idea of 100,000 stalkers doesn't bother you, well, you might as well stop reading this blog post now.

A few months ago Roy was wandering around the Web, looking for something, which he ended up not purchasing. The phone rings. There's a sales lady on the other end who said she saw him browsing their website but didn't buy anything. Can we ask why? Can we make an offer that you might be interested in? Roy replied that they didn't have the cheapest price...and some haggling then ensued. However, Roy was so creeped out that, even though the sales lady said she would price-match, he ended up not buying anything.

That episode was the final straw that led to my subscribing to a VPN--a virtual private network. In the simplest terms, a VPN is a network that tunnels through the Internet by using encryption and other security measures to hide you from peepers and stalkers.

When you hop onto the Internet, either by opening a browser or, these days, by turning on most any computer, your Internet provider assigns you an IP address, for example, As you waltz from site to site, you can be uniquely identified by this address. When you use a VPN, your real IP address is cloaked by the address of the VPN server.

The VPN service I signed up for has servers in many countries, so I can log on to a server in Atlanta, or Chicago, or Tokyo, and to the salesperson watching me, I appear to be located in those places, but the IP address leads nowhere. Which means trackers on me lead nowhere. And good riddance.

After fooling around with the VPN for a while, I did what a lot of people do every day, I went to Google and searched for something. To my surprise, I received an error code: We're sorry, but your computer or network may be sending automated queries. A quick search on a computer not hooked up to the VPN revealed that you can't use Google Search if they can't track you. Needless to say, this little factoid caused me to switch over to the very good Duck Duck Go and Startpage search engines, which do not track you at all.

All this was starting to remind me of Winston Smith, the protagonist in George Orwell's classic 1984. Winston found one corner of his living room where Big Brother couldn't track him via the ubiquitous two-way telescreens that monitored the private and public lives of the populace.

There's nothing inherently wrong with advertising, which is where all this cookie tracking stuff originated. After all, if nobody advertised their stuff, you would not know about the choices available to you. But it's a long, long way from presenting an advertisement to having marketing firms, law enforcement, and government agencies keeping track of the minutiae of your daily life. If you think by eschewing the Internet you're safe from all this, you probably skipped over all the articles on drones that grace the pages of your local newspaper.

The result of all this research has led me to excise all Googleware from the machines that I use daily. In the next few weeks, all the devices in this house will be behind the VPN. Fortunately, Google Blogger doesn't care if they can't track me here, but I am seriously eyeballing WordPress as an alternative. I am looking at a private mail service, as well. Gentlemen don't read other people's mail, and clearly, our government no longer contains anything resembling gentlemen.

While it's impossible to be anonymous on-line these days, it is possible, with a little exertion, to keep a low profile. And if you think that these measures are necessary for safety and security (of our children!), I urge you to read, or reread, 1984. I've been around for almost seven decades, and I will escape what looks like this inevitable future. However, you, or your children, may see a world similar to the one depicted in that book. 

As a final thought, you should think about the fact that I was hesitant to publish this post at all, for fear of being placed on a government list.

fleegle pats her tinfoil hat and signs off.


Cheryl S. said...

Thanks for an interesting post!

I have used DoNotTrackMe for quite a while, and I use both DuckDuckGo and Google for searches, depending on whether or not I care about the tracking. I also pay for an email hosting service. I know that google scans your gmail mail for marketing purposes, and who knows what else. Gaah.

I don't have a smartphone, and don't use my tablet much outside the home, so I haven't bothered looking into a VPN yet, but whenever I bite the bullet to buy a smartphone, or start traveling more, I will. (Your VPN link isn't correct, BTW.)

I think we're a dying breed, though. The younger crowd doesn't seem to care about their online privacy, and I imagine that's just the wave of the future, and it will become more and more impossible to avoid.

Katie K said...

This is an interesting post and the options you discuss are worth investigating.

Three points: 1. There are things inherently wrong with advertising. For one thing it exacerbates and plays on our anxieties. Contrary to your assertion, I know what my choices are without referring to it. In fact I ignore all of it on purpose. It should not be seen as a public service. It is a form of manipulation. Having once been in the business, I know whereof I speak.

2. How can we be sure that the VPN service is really a shield that is not providing information to third parties?

3. Many young people are ditching facebook, having developed concerns about their privacy. Let's not be slamming them.

fleegle said...

Cheryl, The link has been fixed.
Katie, you will just have to go read about VPNs and the services they provide. And if I didn't advertise in the sidebar here and on Ravelry, few people would find my shop.

Tim said...

I have done lots of Google searches over VPNs, so I suspect it's not that simple. The complaint was that it thought you were a bot, which makes me wonder if that particular VPN was behaving badly, or maybe another VPN customer *was* a bot. Maybe try a different VPN? I'm generally sympathetic to keeping a low profile, and recommend things like Https Everywhere.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the tin hat club ; )
my husband started using a VPN last year.
we got tired of not having any privacy before he switched to it. although I occasionally tease him about being paranoid I am glad he set this up.
ps he is got VPN for our adult children and went over to their houses to show them how it works.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this very informative post. I've felt uneasy about so much tracking, but too baffled/lazy to figure out what to do.

I am going to implement some of these measures.

Thanks again.


Cheryl S. said...

Oh, and I also meant to ask about the Roy's experience. That is the most bizarre thing! How did they have your phone number - was it a company you had done business with before, or was he using a smartphone that exposed his phone number to the site?

Susan (and SmokeyBlue in spirit) said...

Ahhhh the modern day equivalent of all that picture taking in the late 60’ and early 70’s.

Southern Gal said...

did you try FEEDLY for your reader replacement?

its fabulous and since G announced the death of Reader, Feedly has constantly been updating and adding components that make it far superior to the G Reader.

i am actually glad to have found it.

i use https everywhere. but also have a vpn account for when i want to use that.

Stripeyspots said...

That was so interesting. I don't want to be paranoid. (Mostly because I'm so sure that I'll end up being paranoid about the wrong thing and then wind up saying, "Dammit! I knew I should have been more worried about x! Why did I obsess on y?" - Hate being wrong.) But it's as if online behavior doesn't have to obey the laws of real world behaviour. Nobody is allowed to eavesdrop on my phone calls, how come they get to listen in on my internet?

Unknown said...

The story about the phone call made me think about how more and more, if I Google something that I want to buy, by the time I go to another site, even if it's two seconds later, the sidebar advertising is already customized to match what I was searching for. I'm not particuarly possessive of my privacy but this does creep even me out a little bit. (Ironically, in order to post this comment, I have to sign in to my Google account. Huh.)

Helen said...

Thanks for the kick in the pants I was needing: I left Firefox when it had a bug and I've been lazily staying with Chrome ever since, because it has the same box for googling and typing urls. That's a hard innovation to let go of, I find. However, I will now get organized and get back to Firefox.
What browser do you use on your iPad? I'm trying Mercury at the moment.

Kathy Kathy Kathy said...

I use g-mail and I probably shouldn't. The advertising accompanying messages that I open is related to the content of the message. No privacy there. I am cynical enough to believe that trying to cloak myself won't help, but maybe I am being foolish. Foolish and cynical are not exclusive.

Whatzitknitz said...

I am a little late to adding some more tickler likes Hushmail as a private email account.

Anonymous said...

On tin foil hats...that's the part of the name of my blog!

I have a free VPN service that also has a premium version that you subscribe to; I have begun using it whenever I remember.

I used to use DuckDuckGo for the reason that they don't track, but when I'm searching for something school related I use Google because it gives me better results.

I'm pretty sure I'm already on a terrorist watch list -- or several.

Unknown said...

Very interesting and true. I do not like the Google dependency either. They all these products and once we are comfortable with them zap away they go. Bloggler is not exactly user friendly either. I developed and maintain a couple of websites on Wordpress, the server sits far away from me and has never failed. The price is very right, and after 8+ years I have yet to call once for support and not receive anything but the best. You can run you own mail server there too. All sits in your own private database that only you have access to. The applications are supported by the company but the content is yours away from all eyes except when you want to share. WestHost is the name of the company. You can also host your own eshop and other goodies if you wish.

Shell said...

Thank you for keeping us safe, not only from the knitting demons but from those who are spying on us. Of course I have had to try to post this several days until the powers that be would let me.