February 28, 2012

Google Circumvents Safari Privacy Protections – This is Why We Need Do Not Track

February 16, 2012 | By Peter Eckersley and Rainey Reitman and Lee Tien

Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal published evidence that Google has been circumventing the privacy settings of Safari and iPhone users, tracking them on non-Google sites despite Apple's default settings, which were intended to prevent such tracking.

This tracking, discovered by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, was a technical side-effect—probably an unintended side-effect—of a system that Google built to pass social personalization information (like, “your friend Suzy +1'ed this ad about candy”) from the google.com domain to the doubleclick.net domain. Further technical explanation can be found below.

Coming on the heels of Google’s controversial decision to tear down the privacy-protective walls between some of its other services, this is bad news for the company. It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users. One way that Google can prove itself as a good actor in the online privacy debate is by providing meaningful ways for users to limit what data Google collects about them. Specifically, it’s time that Google's third-party web servers start respecting Do Not Track requests, and time for Google to offer a built-in Do Not Track option.

Meanwhile, users who want to be safe against web tracking can't rely on Safari's well-intentioned but circumventable protections. Until Do Not Track is more widely respected, users who wish to defend themselves against online tracking should use AdBlock Plus for Firefox or Chrome, or Tracking Protection Lists for Internet Explorer.1 AdBlock needs to be used with EasyPrivacy and EasyList in order to offer maximal protection.

Technical details: Google tries to poke a small hole in Safari's privacy protections, but the hole becomes very large

The Safari and iOS browsers have a useful privacy feature: they automatically reject third-party tracking cookies unless a user actively interacts with a widget or clicks on the third party's ads. This is a big step up from the default settings on most browsers. Advertisers typically use tracking cookies to create an invisible record of your online browsing habits, and large advertisers can track you across huge swaths of the web. Safari offers some protection against this type of passive tracking: it specifically prevents a site from setting cookies unless those cookies are from a domain name that you have visited or interacted with directly.

As Google engineers were building the system for passing facts like "your friend Suzy +1'ed this ad" from google.com to doubleclick.net, they would have likely realized that Safari was stopping them from linking this data using third-party DoubleClick cookies. So it appears they added special JavaScript code that tricked Safari into thinking the user was interacting with DoubleClick,2 causing Safari to allow the cookies that would facilitate social personalization (and perhaps, at some point, other forms of pseudonymous behavioral targeting). This was a small hole in Safari's privacy protections.

Unfortunately, that had the side effect of completely undoing all of Safari's protections against doubleclick.net. It caused Safari to allow other DoubleClick cookies, and especially the main "id" tracking cookie that Safari normally blocked. Like a balloon popped with a pinprick, all of Safari's protections against DoubleClick were gone.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent infographic explaining this process.

The right hand is not talking to the left

Public statements by Google have indicated that parts of the company had a fairly good understanding of Safari's privacy protections:

In the screenshot above, Google states: “While we don’t yet have a Safari version of the Google advertising cookie opt-out plugin, Safari is set by default to block all third party cookies. If you have not changed those settings, this option effectively accomplished the same thing as setting the opt-out cookie.” If only that had stayed true.

Safari gives users an opportunity to block passive tracking by online advertisers. Google's decision to route around those settings took it down a dangerous road. Any code that was specifically designed to circumvent privacy protection features should have triggered a much higher level of review and caution, and that clearly did not happen.

Can Advertisers Learn That "No Means No" (PDF), a research study on flash cookies published in 2011, characterized online advertisers who used flash cookies to override user privacy settings as paternalistic:

Advertisers see individuals as objects. When conceived of as objects, consumers’ preferences no longer matter. Privacy can be coded into oblivion or be circumvented with technology. Our 2009 and 2011 work empirically demonstrates that advertisers implement paternalistic judgments that subjects of targeted marketing cannot make proper judgments for themselves.

Today, Google looks just as paternalistic as ad networks setting flash cookies to outfox people who try to delete their cookies.

People around the world rely on Safari to browse the web, including iPhone users, whose choices are severely limited by Apple's walled garden. That’s a lot of people who are denied a voice when it comes to online tracking.

It’s Time for Google to Make Amends: an Open Letter to Google

Google, the time has finally come. You need to make a pro-privacy offering to restore your users’ trust.

Internet users worldwide have loved your products for years, and we’ve often praised your stance on free expression and transparency and your efforts to limit government access to users’ information. But when it comes to consumer choice around privacy, your commitment to users has been weaker. That’s bad for users, for the future of the Internet, and ultimately, for you. We need to create an Internet that gives users meaningful choice about sharing their personal data, and we need your help to do it.

It’s time for a new chapter in Google’s policy regarding privacy. It’s time to commit to giving users a voice about tracking and then respecting those wishes.

For a long time, we’ve hoped to see Google respect Do Not Track requests when it acts as a third party on the Web, and implement Do Not Track in the Chrome browser. This privacy setting, available in every other major browser, lets users express their choice about whether they want to be tracked by mysterious third parties with whom they have no relationship. And even if a user deleted her cookies, the setting would still be there.

Right now, EFF, Google, and many other groups are involved in a multi-stakeholder process to define the scope and execution of Do Not Track through the Tracking Protection Working Group. Through this participatory forum, civil liberties organizations, advertisers, and leading technologists are working together to define how Do Not Track will give users a meaningful way to control online tracking without unduly burdening companies. This is the perfect forum for Google to engage on the technical specifications of the Do Not Track signal, and an opportunity to bring all parties together to fight for user rights. While the Do Not Track specification is not yet final, there's no reason to wait. Google has repeatedly led the way on web security by implementing features long before they were standardized. Google should do the same with web privacy. Get started today by linking Do Not Track to your existing opt-out mechanisms for advertising, +1, and analytics.

Google, make this a new era in your commitment to defending user privacy. Commit to offering and respecting Do Not Track.

  • 1. As this blog goes to press, we are unsure whether ad blockers for Safari can prevent the browser from sending requests, which is essential for this kind of privacy protection to be effective.
  • 2. The code was web developers call a "hidden form submission", contained in a DoubleClick iframe. This code was only sent to Apple's browsers: Mayer tested 400 user-agent strings, and found that only Safari received the JavaScript that performed hidden form submissions.

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July 25, 2011

Trillian – version 5

Click here to download Trillian v5.x!

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May 28, 2011

Why is my Internet different from your Internet?

May 23, 2011, 6:39 AM PDT

Takeaway: At home you search for something on Google. Ten minutes later, at work, you enter the exact same query into Google, but get different results. Why?

December 4th, 2009 was a pivotal day for the Internet. Still, as Eli Pariser points out in his new book,The Filter Bubble , very few people noticed what the search giant Google had done. Fortunately:

“Search engine blogger Danny Sullivan pores over the items on Google’s blog, looking for clues about where the monolith is headed next, and to him, the post was a big deal. In fact, he wrote later that day , it was the biggest change that has ever happened in search engines.”


Filter bubble? What is it?

Mr. Pariser’s book is titled after the phenomenon he calls the “filter bubble”. He explains what it’s all about in the book:


“The new generation of Internet filters looks at things you seem to like-the actual things you’ve done, or the things people like you like-and tries to extrapolate. They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you’ll do and want next.


Together these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us-what I’ve come to call a filter bubble-which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.”


What Google has known all along

For some time now, Google has been capturing the following information:


  • Search History: Google keeps track of what is clicked on in search results. If Google notices a certain site is picked more often, it will get a rankings boost.
  • Signed-Out Web History: This history is browser-centric. Google tracks all the searches and search-result selections.
  • Signed-In Web History: This history is user-centric. If the user is recognized by Google, everything is tracked.

Google uses the above data to provide customized-search results to signed-in account owners who give their permission .


What changed?

So what was this dramatic change? Google altered Personal Search, enabling it for everyone not just those logged on, by using what they call signed-out customization :


“When you’re not signed in, Google customizes your search experience based on past search information linked to your browser, using a cookie. Google stores up to 180 days of signed-out search activity linked to your browser’s cookie, including queries and results you click.”

Turning Personal Search on for everyone concerned Mr. Sullivan. Calling it the “New Normal “, he explains:

“The days of ‘normal’ search results that everyone sees are now over. Personalized results are the ‘new normal,’ and the change is going to shift the search world and society in general in unpredictable ways.”

To put it another way, Mr. Sullivan mentions:

“Happy that you’re ranking in the top results for a term that’s important to you?


Look again. Turn off personalized search, and you might discover that your top billing is due to the way the personalized system is a huge ego search reinforcement tool. If you visit your own site often, your own site ranks better in your own results-but not for everyone else.”

And, here I thought my articles were getting high rankings because of their merit. Ouch.


PageRank and then some

PageRank is what made Google famous, more than a few people rich, and how Google rates web pages. In 2009, Google altered their holy grail, in order to revamp Personal Search. Mr. Pariser, in his book, points out that Google now uses 57 different variables or “signals” to create search results tailored specifically for you. Some of the known signals are:


  • Search history
  • Location
  • Active browser
  • Computer being used
  • Language configured

I suspect the other 52 will remain secret, much like the formula for Coke.


What it all means

Ever have one of those feelings that something doesn’t seem right, but you can’t put your finger on it? I suspect that’s why it took me until now to realize the implication of Google’s Personal Search. And, why Mr. Pariser has spent a great deal of time and effort coming to his conclusions.


I’m glad I read the book. Understanding Mr. Pariser’s concerns will help me gage search results more realistically. For the time-challenged, Mike Elgan offers a synopsis of the book, in his blog post, How to pop your Internet ‘filter bubble’ :

“In this column, I’m going to tell you how personalization works, why you may not want it, and also how to pop the bubble and opt out of a system that censors your Internet based on stereotyping.”

I found the following tips by Mr. Elgan useful:

  • Deliberately click on links that make it hard for the personalization engines to pigeonhole you. Make yourself difficult to stereotype.
  • Erase your browser history and cookies from time to time.
  • Use an “incognito” window for exploring content you don’t want too much of later.
  • Use Twitter instead of Facebook for news. (Twitter doesn’t personalize.)

Update: As for Twitter and Facebook, I just read a Yahoo Finance article prepared by WSJ and felt compelled to share it with you. The article refers to the Facebook “Like” button and Twitter’s “Tweet” button that is displayed on web pages:

“These so-called social widgets, which appear atop stories on news sites or alongside products on retail sites, notify Facebook and Twitter that a person visited those sites even when users don’t click on the buttons, according to a study done for The Wall Street Journal.”

The article goes on to explain something that may surprise you:

“For this to work, a person only needs to have logged into Facebook or Twitter once in the past month. The sites will continue to collect browsing data, even if the person closes their browser or turns off their computers, until that person explicitly logs out of their Facebook or Twitter accounts.”

How about that?


An afterthought

The advantage afforded those with the ability to manipulate search-engine results is huge. And, I was interested in learning what Mr. Pariser and Mr. Sullivan thought about that. Time did not allow Mr. Pariser to respond. Mr. Sullivan did.


Kassner: Ultimately, my concern is how do we know that queried search results are not forced biases leading us to follow someone else’s agenda?

Sullivan: I think despite personalization, the search results still reflect lots of diversity. I also think that results are only the start of research into a new area. Wherever you end up, you’ll probably get some pointers to other material-and that also leads to greater diversity.

I also think it’s easy to assume the worse. My friends are all liberal (let’s say), so I’ll never see anything but a liberal view of the world. Perhaps. But the reality is that some of your friends will probably point toward some anti-liberal material, as part of their discussions. And that’s exposing you to more diversity.

Assuming the worse, Google could intentionally try to bias its search results to a particular view. But that assumes there’s a particular view on literally billions of unique searches that are done each month. There’s just not. Some of them have no particular slant one way or another. But even if you managed it, as I said, some of those resources (just like your friends) will point toward content they don’t agree with.

The challenge isn’t that we won’t get exposed to contrary statements. The challenge is that people are seemingly more and more happy to ignore contrary material and create their own beliefs without any critical thinking. “True Enough ” is a good book on this topic. Perhaps this really isn’t something new but rather has always been there. But it sure feels new to me.

Kassner:I am seeing people preferring to use links mentioned by Twitter and Facebook. They trust those opinions over the search engines. Are you seeing that as well? Do you see this as a growing trend?

Sullivan: I do see it growing, and it’s because our social networks offline have “caught up” to being as accessible as search engines for quick answers. We can ask many people for answers to anything, and that’s particularly attractive for subjective questions where there’s no right answer, where we want opinions from those we know.

Kassner: What is your opinion on the general health of search today?

Sullivan: I think the general health is actually pretty good. We should look for search engines to do more to increase quality, which means probably relying less on the link-based systems of ranking that worked in the past and more toward using social signals as well as our own behavior.

Kassner: Good advice. I intend on heeding it.


Final thoughts

My goal is to make you aware of what Mr. Pariser calls the filter bubble. And, explain why my Internet is different from your Internet. Just knowing search customization is happening is more than half the battle.


I learned a great deal from Mr. Sullivan about a subject I thought I understood. I was wrong and I thank him for his help.

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July 13, 2010

Mozilla Thunderbird 3.1

CNET editors' review

Reviewed by: Seth Rosenblatt on December 08, 2009

Download here

Despite perceptions to the contrary, the desktop-based e-mail client is not dead. viagra affiliate Mozilla Thunderbird 3.0 is a serious reaction to the prevalence of Web mail, so whether you're looking for a strong desktop client, an Outlook replacement, or a powerful tool for managing archives and Web mail offline, Thunderbird can scale to your needs.

Outlook users will notice the speed and responsiveness of the program, which loads quickly, even when weighed down by multiple folders and RSS feeds, and the basic feature set remains intact: good junk mail filters, HTML support, multiple identities, and robust Web mail, POP, IMAP, and Microsoft Exchange server support. Security features include S/MIME, digital signing, message encryption, and a built-in phishing detector. Add-ons, based on the same code as Firefox's add-on network, can enhance your security even further.

Joining such useful features as the back and forward e-mail browsing buttons and customizable tags in version 3.0 are a set of must-have features. The powerful search tool integrates results with desktop searches on Windows Vista and Windows 7, while tabs reinforce the connections between Web browsing and e-mail reading. In fact, the new search tool is so powerful that if you have a massive number of e-mails, you may want to set it to index them overnight lest it drain system resources from other programs. Gmail support especially has been revamped, so you now get an All Mail folder in Thunderbird, among other improvements. Mozilla's new Personas skins work in Thunderbird, while the Lightning add-on supplies the missing Microsoft Exchange-compatible calendar feature.

Flexible, powerful, and lightweight, Thunderbird 3 is an appropriate companion to Firefox in every way.


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April 4, 2010

Add a Gmail account in Outlook

You can send and receive e-mail messages by using your Google Gmail e-mail account and Outlook. Gmail requires a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encrypted connection when you retrieve and send e-mail. Gmail uses POP3 port number 995 and Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) port number 465. These settings are not the default for a POP3 account in Outlook and require you to modify account settings in Outlook.

The outgoing e-mail server is similar to those used by many Internet service providers (ISPs). However, Gmail requires authentication on their SMTP e-mail server. This requirement means that you must provide a user name and password — the same as your Gmail screen name and password — before you send your e-mail message. You can save the user name and password in Outlook so that you enter the information just one time.

The following steps configure Outlook for all necessary settings required to send and receive e-mail by using your Gmail e-mail account and Outlook.

 Note   When you change your Gmail password, you need to update the Gmail account information in Outlook.

Do one of the following:

Add your Gmail e-mail account

To use your Gmail e-mail account in Outlook, you must first make sure POP3 support is enabled in Gmail, and then you can add it to Outlook.

  1. Log in to your Gmail account.
  2. At the top of any Gmail page, click Settings.
  3. In the Mail Settings window, click Forwarding and POP.

    I don't see Forwarding and POP

  4. In the POP Download section, select Enable POP or all mail or Enable POP only for mail that arrives from now on.
  5. Click Save Settings.
  6. In Outlook, on the Tools menu, click E-mail Accounts.
  7. Click Add a new e-mail account, and then click Next.
  8. Click POP3, and then click Next.
  9. Under User Information, do the following:
    1. In the Your Name box, type your full name the way you want it to appear to other people.
    2. In the E-mail Address box, type your e-mail user name followed by @gmail.com.
  10. Under Server Information, do the following:
    1. In the Incoming mail server (POP3) box, type pop.gmail.com.
    2. In the Outgoing mail server (SMTP) box, type smtp.Gmail.com.
  11. Under Logon Information, do the following:
    1. In the User Name box, type your full e-mail address, including @gmail.com.
    2. In the Password box, type your password.
    3. Select the Remember password check box.

       Note   You have the option to have Outlook remember your password by typing it in the Password box and selecting the Remember password check box. Having Outlook remember your password means that you won't have to type your password each time you access the account; however, it also means that the account is vulnerable to anyone who has access to your computer.

  12. Click More Settings.
  13. On the General tab, under Mail Account, type Gmail.
  14. Click the Outgoing Server tab, and then select the My outgoing server (SMTP) requires authentication check box.
  15. Select Use same settings as my incoming mail server.
  16. Click the Advanced tab, and then under Server Port Numbers for both Incoming server (POP3) and Outgoing server (SMTP), select the This server requires an encrypted connection (SSL) check boxes.
  17. Change the Outgoing server (SMTP) port number to 465.

    The Incoming server (POP3) port number should change automatically to 995 when you select the This server requires an encrypted connection (SSL) check box.

  18. Click OK.
  19. To verify that your account is working, click Test Account Settings. If there is missing or incorrect information, such as your password, you will be prompted to supply or correct it. Make sure your computer is connected to the Internet.
  20. Click Next, and then click Finish.


  • Do not select the Log on using Secure Password Authentication (SPA) check box.
  • Unless specified by Gmail, all server and address entries are typed in lowercase letters.

Remove your Gmail e-mail account

  1. On the Tools menu, click E-mail Accounts.
  2. Click View or change existing e-mail accounts, and then click Next.
  3. Click the Gmail e-mail account you want to remove, and then click Remove.
  4. Click Finish.

 Note   You can export your Outlook Contacts as a Comma Separated Values (.csv) file and import your contacts into your Gmail account. For help on exporting and importing your Outlook Contacts, see the See Also section in this article.

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