Fire-Foxes and Privacy-Badgers

Good afternoon one and all. I know it’s been rather quiet on here the last month of so, but I’ve been tied up with a number of projects, in addition to the fact that the glorious Bavarian summer is playing havoc with my hibernian homeostatic balance. But I’ve decided to give you a quick update on the latest in a line (previous additions to your online privacy arsenal can be found here, here and here) of handy online tools for protection of your personal data – Privacy Badger. Privacy Badger is the excellently-named brainchild of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). If you’re not familiar with the EFF, I suggest you become so, as they are a particularly laudable digital rights non-profit who get up to such activities as; defending individuals and new technologies from misdirected legal threats, organising political action and mass mailings (on issues such as net neutrality), supporting new technologies which it believes preserve personal freedoms, whilst exposing technologies and companies who encroach on such freedoms, supporting fair and open copyright policies, keeping an eye on patent trolls, and much, much more.

Privacy Badger is a free web browser extension, developed by the EFF,  which seeks to block advertisements and tracking cookies that do not respect the Do Not Track setting in a user’s web browser. At the moment it is just available for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, however in the near future they hope to release it for Opera and Firefox Mobile, though at the moment Safari or Internet Explorer support is not planned, since current versions of those browsers appear to be incompatible with how Privacy Badger works at a technical level.  They describe their model as one aimed at simplicity and fairness:

Privacy Badger was born out of our desire to be able to recommend a single extension that would automatically analyze and block any tracker or ad that violated the principle of user consent; which could function well without any settings, knowledge or configuration by the user; which is produced by an organization that is unambiguously working for its users rather than for advertisers; and which uses algorithmic methods to decide what is and isn’t tracking.

Although we like Disconnect, Adblock Plus, Ghostery and similar products (in fact Privacy Badger is based on the ABP code!), none of them are exactly what we were looking for. In our testing, all of them required some custom configuration to block non-consensual trackers. Several of these extensions have business models that we weren’t entirely comfortable with. And EFF hopes that by developing rigorous algorithmic and policy methods for detecting and preventing non-consensual tracking, we’ll produce a codebase that could in fact be adopted by those other extensions, or by mainstream browsers, to give users maximal control over who does and doesn’t get to know what they do online.

At the moment they only block third party trackers (rather than first party ones such as those of Facebook), and not all ads per se, but rather only ones based on images and scripts which seem to be tracking you despite your explicit Do Not Track settings. They point out that they also want to create incentives for advertising companies to do the right thing, abut that, if you really dislike ads, you can also install a traditional ad blocker.

Why does Privacy Badger block ads?
Actually, nothing in the Privacy Badger code is specifically written to block ads. Rather, it focuses on disallowing any visible or invisible “third party” scripts or images that appear to be tracking you even though you specifically denied consent by sending a Do Not Track header. It just so happens that most (but not all) of these third party trackers are advertisements. When you see an ad, the ad sees you, and can track you. Privacy Badger is here to stop that.

Incidentally, they also have an interesting workaround the handiness of social media widgets, but their worrying habit of tracking your behaviour whether you click them or not;

Social media widgets (such as the Facebook Like button, Twitter Tweet button, or Google +1 button) often track your reading habits. Even if you don’t click them, the social media companies often see exactly which pages you’re seeing the widget on. As a result, the Privacy Badger alpha release would often block these widgets outright. The Privacy Badger beta includes a new feature imported from the ShareMeNot project which is able to replace the widgets with a stand-in version, so that you can still see and click them. You will not be tracked by these replacements unless you explicitly choose to click them.

Privacy Badger is currently in Beta, and they hope to continue adding new features such as adding fingerprinting countermeasures in a future update (as demonstrated with the Panopticlick project). As it is an ongoing project, they welcome donations and bug reporting (here for Privacy Badger for Firefox or here for Privacy Badger for Chrome), in case you feel like helping out. It is well worth a look, and might possibly compliment your current host of privacy protection extensions or tools, or even replace a couple of them.

All the best,

~ Shane

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