A Business Technology Place

Targeted ads and your privacy

A large portion of my time at work managing Information Technology is spent handling security and availability of data. The number of compliance controls has sharply risen in recent years as a direct result of the publicity of data breaches and high profile data theft. Quite frankly, security and availability compliance is a bit chaotic right now with new job creation, changing standards, new standards, and individual company risk assessments.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal from Christopher Mims about targeted ads left me thinking about the availability of my personal data spread across servers and data stores all over the internet. We all know about internet browser cookies leaving trails of our activity as we use the internet for research, shopping, reading, and entertainment. Mims discusses the rise of Amazon’s ad business and how it offers distinct data points that may differ from other internet giants like Google and Facebook. All this data sharing is governed by privacy policies, terms of use, and partner affiliates. But I still find it creepy when products I have researched appear on other sites I visit as recommended buys. As I mentioned my job makes me prove how I don’t share customer data. But retail and social media businesses are monetizing my data by selling it.

I performed a simple test this morning to how browser privacy settings affected my experience with some internet sites. For all these tests I used the Google Chrome Browser. Other browsers have similar features.

Note: There are so many variations for privacy settings across sites that this can quickly become a complex subject. Businesses rely on cookies in your browser but also have the ability to track your history on their site in their databases which is governed by their privacy rules. My simple test was to see how I might increase some of my privacy by adjusting a couple of settings on a browser.

Test One – Eat all the cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn on the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser
  6. Close and reopen the browser
  7. Go to Amazon, eBay, and Facebook

Results:

This setting allows the sites visited to set their tracking and information cookies. But each time the browser is closed all of the cookies are removed.  Automatically clearing cookies means it is necessary to log into the websites each time the site is revisited. Clearing cache files causes websites to load more slowly after a browser restart. Are the performance downsides worth the small increase in privacy?

I checked sites Amazon, eBay, and Facebook and targeted ads were not there across different browser sessions. But I did have to reauthenticate.

Test Two – Eat some cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn off the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser (revert Test One)
  6. In the section Clear on Exit add sites that may serve targeted ads. I chose
    • [*.]Facebook.com
    • [*.]Amazon.com
    • [*.]eBay.com
  7. Close and reopen the browser
  8. Go to www.google.com
    • Search “new tires”
    • Search “printer toner HP”
    • Search “Keurig k cups”
  9. Go to Facebook browse and look for ads
  10. Go to Amazon browse and look for ads
  11. Go to eBay browse and look for ads

Results:

I didn’t find any in-line ads for tires, toner or coffee initially. I noted that I had not clicked on any search results; I just searched and viewed results. I went back and researched on Keurig k cups. Then I clicked on a result from Amazon. When I did this, the recommended buys from Amazon completely filled with k cups.  I closed the browser and the recommended buys changed back to something I had purchased in the past. But the site still showed items I had recently browsed.  Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

eBay only filled a section with recently viewed items which gave me the impression they were only seeing activities performed on their site. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

Facebook had no advertising in-line but did serve ads on the right-side of the page under the title “recommended for you nearby”. The ads I saw didn’t match tires, printer toner, or coffee. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account. Advertisers buy targeted ads based on specific interests. I guess my timing wasn’t right for my three tests.

A few more settings of interest:

Facebook:

In addition to the web browser, Facebook is also tracking your account activity and selling that data to advertisers. Turn off some of the Facebook targeted advertising by doing this:

  1. From your Facebook profile, click on the small upside-down triangle in the upper-right side.
  2. Select Settings
  3. Select Ads from the left-hand side of the page
  4. Facebook selects Yes as the default option. Change the permissions to No.

Google:

  1. Go to page https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols
  2. There are various sections for activity tracking by Google (search, devices, YouTube, location, etc.) Read each section and designate if you want Google keeping that information.

My thoughts:

Unless I go off the grid or completely stop using the internet, it’s not possible to stop all monitoring of my activities by my internet provider, merchants, search engines, etc. Playing with the browser settings may limit some of the trails I leave and give me a sense of a little more privacy. The settings can certainly reduce the size of my electronic footprint but not eliminate it. As I mentioned before, it’s up to the individual to weigh the trade-offs of privacy with usage on the site.

Onward and upward!

Photo credit: Surlan Soosay via creative commons.

The local library and my reading habit

Alexandra Alter wrote an article in the NY Times this week about technology and our reading habits. Alter’s piece does a good job of reviewing differences between print and electronic readers as well as some changes in recent years in the publishing industry.  Like Alter, I prefer eBooks because of the convenience, searchability, and portability. But the base audience in her article is people who buy books not borrow them. She didn’t make one mention of the public library.

Generally speaking, I search my local library first when I want to read a book. I’ve used print, electronic, and audio versions of books in the past. I know library borrowing isn’t for everyone but here are a few reasons why I prefer it:

  1. I rarely go back and read books of fiction or non-fiction twice. So owning a copy on my bookshelf at home or in an eLibrary doesn’t provide meaningful value to me. If I borrow the book and want to take notes then I use a service like Evernote.com to keep thoughts and learnings.
  2. When I read for leisure, I don’t have to have the book right at the moment when I want to read it. I don’t mind waiting until I can either go to the library or when a copy becomes available in the eLibrary. It’s just not an urgent matter.
  3. The eBooks from local library are available through the Amazon Kindle reader or through another eReader app on my tablet. Checking-out an eBook or audio book is as simple as buying it.
  4. If the physical copy of the book is at another branch in the library system not close to me, then they will deliver it to my local branch for free.
  5. There’s no buyer’s remorse with library books. I’ve started a few books that I didn’t like because of the story-line, characters, or writing style. Since I didn’t pay for the book, it was very simple to stop reading and move-on to the next book.

To be fair, borrowing library books does have some frustrations. Availability is limited by the number of copies purchased by the system and number of borrowers ahead of me. This means popular books can have wait times for over a year. If this happens, I have to decide if I’m willing to wait, if I want to purchase it, or if I should search for another book. I usually just search for another book. There are lots of stories to be read.

So technology has altered my reading habits somewhat. I prefer an eBook but will read the paper version without issue if that is what is available. I should also mention that taking an eBook to the beach makes me nervous because of the sand and water around the electronic devices. This is one setting where I prefer a paper book.

Onward and Upward!

 

Password Management System

How do you manage your passwords?

Electronic password managers were created with the goal to help all of us have a more structured approach to storing and retrieving our passwords. But not everyone uses electronic password managers because they don’t know about them, don’t trust them, or because they require extra steps when it is time to authenticate with a service. Many people still rely on sticky notes and paper notebooks.  

I’m convinced passwords are one the largest nuisances in life for most people. It’s easy to see why. Different sites have different password rules and modern password complexity rules require us to use with specials characters, numbers, and capital letters. We can’t reuse password, they have to be a minimum length, and they can’t contain parts of our name or email. I’m dizzy already.

There are two problems with this system:

  1. The rules are not our natural way of processing language and thinking. Result? Passwords are not easy to create and not easy to remember.
  2. To keep up with passwords effectively we all need a system. Sticky notes by the keyboard are not accepted.

Password managers; the good and the bad.

One system to use for credentials management is an electronic password manager tool. There are numerous tools available on the market. Some of them are locally installed on a computer while others are cloud based.

The good

  • Easily searchable
  • Accessible from wherever you are
  • Encrypted text
  • Password auto-creation to match site complexity rules.
  • Accessible only those with whom you share or that have your credentials.

The bad

  • One key to rule them all
  • Cloud based services are targets for attack and exposed to more thieves on the internet
  • The security of electronic sites and applications are frequently exposed for new weaknesses

Don’t lose site of what is at stake.

Regardless of how you feel about electronic password tools compared to a paper based system, don’t lose site of the importance of having a secure system. It’s your data and your life. Identity theft is both harmful and disruptive. Having a password management system can be a time saver too. When you need access to your data you don’t want to spend time looking through drawers and notebooks.

It appears password complexity rules may be changing in the near future as research is showing password length is better than complicated rule sets. So making passwords longer without special characters is a win for both usability and security. In the meantime, make sure you create a safe system.

Onward and upward!

Built-in automobile technology is distracting our driving

We’ve all seen the consequences of texting and driving.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has education content for public awareness campaigns. But, do you think we have a myopic focus on cell phones as the device providing the distraction? Touch screens and electronic functions built-in the latest automobiles can provide as much temptation and distraction as cell phones.  Cars today come with a variety of electronic options including GPS navigation, bluetooth audio, streaming music services, and yes even texting.

My car has a text function that is part of the bluetooth handsfreelink feature. The feature only shows messages when the car is stopped. However, it will read messages out loud using a text-to-speech module when the car is in motion. I use the physical controls to manipulate the function. But wait, there’s more. This feature also allows me to select pre-written replies using the physical knobs in front of me.

I have used this feature in the past, but I’m left to wonder, why is this legal? There isn’t much difference from texting and driving from a phone keypad.  I have to take my eyes off the road to read the display, turn a knob, and select a choice. That’s a distraction. That’s eyes off the road even if only for a second or two.

It’s clear the boundaries are not clearly defined when it comes to safety and automobile features. It certainly feels like automobile manufacturers are getting a pass for what a car owner would not get in the eyes of the law.  I support free enterprise and profits so car makers can sell more units, but the lack of laws and regulations are too light in this area. It feels like a few tragedies waiting to happen.

A good start would be no active text functions when the car is not in park.  Period.

Be smart on the road.

Onward and upward!

Finding Felix

It all started with a tweet.

Last week my local public library tweeted “GCPL has the solution to your quest for genealogy information….#HeritageQuest”.  Squirrel!

The message captured my interest and before I knew it, I was hooked on a modern day treasure hunt for information on my family lineage. 25 years ago I did some basic family research at the state archive building and found census records back to 1910. With the Heritage Quest tool from the library, I was able to view my father’s family line in the census records in every census back to 1840 (except 1890 because most original records were destroyed by fire).  Time travel never felt so real.

Digitization of records.

The big win is the census records are now digitized with metadata. Unlike 25 years ago, when I was searching Microfilm, I was able to complete a wide array of searches very quickly. I could use first name, last name, birth year, death year, places lived, and family members to help narrow search results. Linked to each family unit was the scanned image of the original census document for visual confirmation. Using this new capability I was able to quickly find census record data back to 1880 for my father’s family line. But I wasn’t done. Felix awaited.

One challenge with the metadata is sometimes the interpretation of the original handwriting is wrong and sometimes the original census data has inconsistencies in what is recorded. There were variations in spellings, middle initials, and ages that made it difficult for me to get a match in a few of the years. So I had to examine the data in-context to find matches (approximate ages, children names, place of recording, etc.) Basically, the tools of the digital age combined with manual human intellect to solve a puzzle.

Finding Felix.

1840 Census Document

Before this past week, I knew the name of my great grandfather and great-great grandfather (from my great aunt while she was living). I also knew the cemetery where my great grandmother was buried. Using the cemetery information I was able to locate her grave using the site findagrave.com. At the bottom of her gravesite record was a comment from a lineal relative of mine previously unknown to me (a distant cousin). I emailed her a question asking if she knew the name of the father of my great-great father. Within hours I had the name, Felix.

Using this new information, I went back to the census search. Within a few hours I found Felix in the census records for 1880, 1870, 1860, 1850, and 1840! Hello Felix.

Digging required.

To get to the next generation, I’ll need data from additional sources. The 1790 through 1840 census records only show head of household by name and then headcounts for other family members. I was able to match Felix in 1840 because I knew the age of his spouse and children in the 1850 census.

Over the last four days, I’ve seen the power of metadata searching, optical character recognition and digitization of written records. I just hope I can find Felix through another historical document to tell me a little more. It’s a treasure hunt for another footprint in the past. It’s a story waiting to be told.  

Onward and upward!