After 20 Plus Years, Whoa! Surveillance by Big Tech

August 10, 2020

DarkCyber has noted a flurry of write ups expressing surprise, rage, indignation, and blusterification at the idea of a commercial company collecting data. Hello, services are free for a basic reason: Making money. Part of making money is to have something that other companies and organizations will purchase. A good example is personal information about users of free services. The way big companies work is that there is a constant pressure to find new ways to generate money. Thus, there are data sucking apps; there are advertisements and more advertisements; there are subscriptions which lock in revenue while providing an Amazon-style we know a lot about those who shop on Amazon; and there are many ornaments on these methods.

I got a kick out of “Silicon Valley’s Vast Data Collection Should Worry You More Than TikTok.” We know the story well. Commercial firms in the US gather data and license it, often to marketing firms and to other organizations. After two decades of blissful ignorance a devoted band of “real” journalists are now probing the core business model of many technology centric companies.

Give me a break. We are talking decades of business processes designed to generate useful reports from flows of actions by individuals. In some countries, the government performs this task. In others, commercial enterprises do the work and license the normalized data to governments.

This passage from the write up tickled my funny bone:

And none of this is unreasonable. We should be worried about private companies and governments potentially collecting data on millions of unsuspecting people and censoring content they don’t like. But those based in China represent just a sliver of that threat.

Yep, the old “woulda, coulda, shoulda” ploy. May I remind you, gentle reader, that we are decades into the automation of data about the actions of individuals. These are the happy and often ignorant humanoids who download apps, run queries, click on videos, and send personal message while leaving a data trail a foot deep and a mile wide.

And now the need for something?

And data collection is not a technical and economic issue. Nope. Data collection is politics; for example:

TikTok’s critics might point to the increasingly scary behavior of China’s government as to why Chinese control of information is particularly alarming. They’re right about the behavior, but they curiously ignore the fact that the United States itself is currently governed by a far-right demagogue with his own concentration camps and authoritarian repression, and that the party behind him, which aligns entirely with his politics, reliably cycles into power at least once every eight years.

What’s the fix? Well, “oppose it all.”

Where were the regulators, the users, and the competitors 20 years ago? Probably in grade school, blissfully unaware that those handheld gadgets would become more important than other activities. Okay, adult thumbtypers, your outrage is interesting. Step back, and perhaps you can see why the howls of outrage, the references to evil forms of government, and the horrors of toting around a device that usually provides real time documentation of one’s actions as a bad thing.

But after 20 years, is it surprising that personal data actions are captured, analyzed, and used to provide more data “stuff” to consume? As I said, its been 20 years with no lessening of the processes. Complain to your parents. Maybe they dropped the ball? Commercial enterprises and governments are like beavers. And beavers do what beavers do.

Stephen E Arnold, August 10, 2020

Hippy Dippy New Age Insight: Ads Are Numerous

July 30, 2020

I want to keep this brief. The number of ads is increasing. Avoiding them is difficult. Why? Zero controls, zero social responsibility, and zero regulatory oversight.

I Was Horrified at How Many Ads the New Brave Browser and VPN for iOS Blocked” is amusing because it reveals the lack of awareness of the zip zip mobile world in which some hippy dippy New Age “real” news publications thrive.

The article states:

I visited a few of my favorite sites and then was promptly horrified when it told me that in about 3 minutes of browsing, it had blocked 107 ads and trackers and given me 2 HTTPS upgrades. Supposedly, this saved me five seconds of my life.

Not for long. Online advertisers share some DNA with bad actors creating novel malware. One difference: Law enforcement pursues the malware wizards. Online advertising outfits get invited to testify to a Congressional committee.

Stephen E Arnold, July 30, 2020

Scam Ads: Easy to Do Apparently

July 8, 2020

A somewhat shocking assertion appears in “Easy for Fraudsters to Post Scam Ads on Facebook and Google.” The article reports that researchers posted fake ads on Google:

They found that Google did review the adverts submitted, but failed to verify whether the business was real and did not ask for ID. In under an hour, the adverts were approved by the search engine firm for both dummy businesses, gaining almost 100,000 impressions over the space of a month. The fake advert for Natural Hydration was displayed above the official NHS Scotland pages when users searched for “hydration advice”.

A Facebook ad was given similar treatment:

using a personal Facebook account, Which? created a business page on the social network for Natural Hydration and produced a range of posts with pseudo health advice to promote it. A paid promotion of the page gained some 500 likes in the space of a week. Facebook responded to the investigation saying the page set up by Which? does not violate its community standards and is not currently selling products.

Are these data accurate? Regulatory authorities seem to lack tools to influence the large online advertising monopolies.

Stephen E Arnold, July 8, 2020

Facebook Ad Boycott Risk: The Mark of El Zucko

July 2, 2020

I have a general rule: Those with power are likely to stomp on little people like me. What happens when companies that need access to Facebook users get cute with El Zucko?

Mr. Zuckerberg may not have a sword like El Zorro’s, but he has a digital cattle probe, and he can crank up the voltage.

Moral: A big advertiser better be a heck of a lot bigger than El Zucko, or the advertiser will end up with some memorable Facebook moments. Not all of these love taps with the cattle probe will be “likes.”

The trust outfit published “Facebook Frustrates Advertisers As Boycott over Hate Speech Kicks Off.” The message I carried away from the trust outfit’s “real” news story was that Facebook keeps on being Facebook.

Let’s consider the advertisers’ options:

First, advertisers can route their digital advertising to services which disseminate content on AdF.ly type networks. If you are not familiar with this fine option, check it out. If AdF.ly is a bit too avant garde, there is lovable Alphabet Google YouTube. Ads can appear in interesting contexts. Because the AGY systems are dynamic, one may not know where ads appear. Not to worry, right?

Second, advertisers can run into the arms of those lovable Amazonians. Pitching consulting services on Amazon is tricky, but it is not impossible. Options range from zippy videos for the Twitch.tv consumers, or one can team up with a vendor of something and package one’s consulting service with the tangible product as an after purchase “training” or “support” option.

Third, advertisers can hunt down the ad sales professionals at print publications. These individuals are easy to spot. Their schedules are vacant like their eyes. Well, maybe that is a haunted look related to fear. Just buy space in ever popular publications like the local newspaper. Alternatively why not buy double truck ads in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Those must work. IBM ran it’s “we are in a yellow submarine” ad a few days ago.

Fourth, advertisers can pay search engine optimization experts to pump their message hither and yon using every conceivable type of digital channel available. Everyone loves irrelevant content and links to big company Web sites where emails can be provided and money spent.

Fifth, hang it up. Emulate the businesses which are closing. Blame it on the pandemic, the surge, or whatever.

Net net: Facebook for the foreseeable future has considerable power. El Zucko can keep on doing what he does best; that is, whatever he wants. When he decides to raise ad rates and change the rules of his game, he will. There are ways to implement differential pricing and other types of hair shirt freebies for certain advertisers.

The mark of El Zucko may be a painful burn and a giant Z on an expanse of advertiser skin in the game.

Stephen E Arnold, July 2, 2020

Alphabet Wants to Spell Money with Shop-able Ads

June 30, 2020

Yes, YouTube will become more shop-able. The news shocked no one on the DarkCyber research team. YouTube videos are almost unwatchable. Pre-rolls, interstitials, and post-rolls. Auto-playing of ads when autoplace is set to off. Such convenience, such excellent user experience.

YouTube Launches a New Ad Format That Showcases Product Images” reports:

YouTube created a new ad format that makes the platform more shoppable. The ad format will feature product images for viewers to browse, by integrating company pages into the video platform. Companies can have products displayed through the new ad format by syncing Google Merchant Center with video ad materials. Following that companies can decide which products to feature.

This sounds exciting. Perhaps advertisers taking a break from Facebook will embrace the new platform? What’s next? How about videos which contain zero YouTube creator content. Just one ad surrounded by the “See Also” ads the magic algorithm suggests.

Relevance? Perfect. Efficient. Plus Aerie might get another Google ad research outsourcing contract. The internal professionals are just too darned busy.

Stephen E Arnold, June 30, 2020

Leo LaPorte Enthusiastically Grabs a New Sponsor

June 29, 2020

Sorry, but I cannot resist. Leo LaPorte, one of the TWIT television stalwarts, has shifted from praising Wasabi and branded his studio in Petaluma. I noted a new advertiser which may suggest that technology companies are responding to the Rona Riot. Unlike NoAgenda, the TWIT outfit depends on advertisers. No Agenda, on the other hand, has built a community. Those in the community support the show: Cash, T shirts, original art, and meet ups.

One surprise for me was that Mr. LaPorte donned a carnival barker attitude and slipped into the erectile dysfunction pitch in a slick way.

Online advertising is pretty annoying. I found the enthusiasm which seemed quite sincere a little warning signal about the direction the outfit is heading.

Give me Wasabi and I will pass on Last Past. The Roman product? That’s for friskier and the young at heart. Tasteful and technical appeal to me. Money is money I assume.

Stephen E Arnold, June 28, 20020

Web Analytics: A Fancy Way of Saying You Have a Blue Ribbon Winning Bloodhound Tracking You

June 18, 2020

DarkCyber is easily confused. Every day brings more incredible cyber security marketing hoo-hah. And each day more incredible security issues come to light. A good example was the Wall Street Journal’s story “Russian Hackers Evaded Firms’ Detection Tools”, Wednesday, June 18, 2020. Yeah, those cyber tools are special.

The story “Lightweight Alternatives to Google Analytics” is a helpful round up of digital bloodhounds. If you are looking for ways to make sense of Web site log files, you can work through the snapshots of such systems as GoatCounter, Plausible, Simple Analytics, and Fathom.

The intriguing segment of the write up is, in DarkCyber’s opinion, this statement:

Google tracks and stores a huge amount of information about users.

A 2018 paper [PDF] by Douglas Schmidt highlights the extent of Google’s tracking, with location tracking on Android devices as one example:

Both Android and Chrome send data to Google even in the absence of any user interaction. Our experiments show that a dormant, stationary Android phone (with Chrome active in the background) communicated location information to Google 340 times during a 24-hour period, or at an average of 14 data communications per hour. The paper distinguishes between “active” and “passive” tracking. Active tracking is when the user directly uses or logs into a Google service, such as performing a search, logging into Gmail, and so on. In addition to recording all of a user’s search keywords, Google passively tracks users as they visit web sites that use GA and other Google publisher tools. Schmidt found that in an example “day in the life” scenario, “Google collected or inferred over two-thirds of the information through passive means”. Schmidt’s paper details how GA cookie tracking works, noting the difference between “1st-party” and “3rd-party” cookies — the latter of which track users and their ad clicks across multiple sites: While a GA cookie is specific to the particular domain of the website that user visits (called a “1st-party cookie”), a DoubleClick cookie is typically associated with a common 3rd-party domain (such as doubleclick.net). Google uses such cookies to track user interaction across multiple 3rd-party websites. When a user interacts with an advertisement on a website, DoubleClick’s conversion tracking tools (e.g. Floodlight) places cookies on a user’s computer and generates a unique client ID. Thereafter, if the user visits the advertised website, the stored cookie information gets accessed by the DoubleClick server, thereby recording the visit as a valid conversion. Because such a large percentage of web sites use Google advertising products as well as GA, this has the effect that the company knows a large fraction of users’ browsing history across many web sites, both popular sites and smaller “mom and pop” sites. In short, Google knows a lot about what you like, where you are, and what you buy. Google does provide ways to turn off features like targeted advertising and location tracking, as well as to delete the personalized profile associated with an account. However, these features are almost entirely opt-in, and most users either don’t know about them or just never bother to turn them off. Of course, just switching away from GA won’t eliminate all of these privacy issues (for example, it will do nothing to stop Android location tracking or search tracking), but it’s one way to reduce the huge amount of data Google collects. In addition, for site owners that use a GA alternative, Google does not get a behind-the-scenes look at the site’s traffic patterns — data which it could conceivably use in the future to build a competing tool.

A paywall may be protecting this write up. Nevertheless, if the information in the passage quoted above is accurate, Google’s senior management may have to do some explaining as the company executes some “Dancing with the Stars” footwork if regulators decide to dig into such assertions.

And the bloodhound, “Who me?” Woof.

Stephen E Arnold, June 18, 2020

Organic or Paid Search? Answer: Pay Up

June 16, 2020

There is a weird symbiosis. Unlike the sucker fish clamped on a shark, the predator’s fellow travelers operate in the dark digital ocean. “Organic Vs Paid Search: Explained” correctly points out that traffic costs money. This is not 1994, gentle reader. This is 2020 and the costs of running an ad supported search engine are difficult to control.

The write-up ignores a simple fact: Online advertising companies want anyone who wants clicks and traffic to pay. Like the IRS oriented phrase: Death, taxes, and the online traffic levy.

This means that “organic search” — the 1994 style of Web indexing — is dead like dinosaurs. The future is pay to play.

As output devices become smaller and voice creeps forward as a way to explain where to get a pizza, the free loading sucker fish are going to get scraped off the digital shark. The shark will then eat the sucker fish.

What’s this mean for search engine optimization? More baloney, more hand waving, and another lost cause.

Pay to play, the phrase of the future. There’s no cyber Mother Theresa to intervene.

Stephen E Arnold, June 16, 2020

Google Search: Clutching at Elephant Parts?

June 3, 2020

The DarkCyber research team finds Google search endlessly fascinating. The group is less interested in the relevance of the results and increasingly interested in the manipulations of data. The line between objective results and weaponized results is a thin one. Figuring out what is occurring, the intent of changes in data presentation, and the actions of stakeholders like SEO (search engine optimization) professionals is similar to the behaviors we documented in our Dark Web research. (We summarized some of our data in “Dark Web Notebook. Information about that monograph is available at this link.) Our radar beeped when one of the team identified a certified SEO expert who identified himself as a “hustler.” This is street jargon for a person with behaviors which may be perceived as illegal or quasi illegal.

Consider this Reddit post from Antihero. The focus of Antihero’s attention was a search for mattress. The result returned about 761 million results. However, the first page of search results — that is the one that 95 percent of those using Google view — is entirely ads. To support the argument, Antihero includes a screen shot of the page which indeed is entirely “pay to play” content. Yep, ads, infomercials in text form, carnival barkers who get that prime real estate by paying off the entertainment company managing the event. To sum up, Google is not good.

Now consider this post from a company which depends on Google for indexing and pointing to its content. “Panda and the Death of SEO PR” explains that Google is doing an outstanding job of filtering certain content from its search results. The idea is that bogus news releases which can be output after registering for free news release services is filtered. Plus the changes in search since 2013 have made it more difficult for outputters to put certain content on Web pages which are then indexed by Google and made available to the world. To sum up, Google is good.

Let’s step back. Google is in the business of selling ads. The ad business is different from those halcyon days when Google was furiously litigating with Yahoo about certain similarities between Google’s fledgling ad service and Yahoo’s ad system and method. Google ended up inking a deal; Yahoo went back into its purple jack in the box; and the pay to play approach to “objective” search become the de facto standard in the US and then elsewhere.

When a Web site is not indexed, the webmaster or 23 year old political science major reinvented while living in mom and dad’s basement needs traffic. What are the choices?

  1. Create content and hope that tweets, Facebook posts, and links in LinkedIn generate hundreds of thousands of page views. Google’s algorithms and ad sales professionals monitor such traffic anomalies. A spike could mean a customer with money to spend. With more than 35 billion Web pages in the online indexes, generating a spike is possible, but it is difficult to achieve. That path is called “organic search.” The idea is that clicks flow from the video, the content, or the image posted. Organic search operates on the magnet principle. Good content pulls traffic. Yes, that happens.
  2. Buy ads. This approach does work. Amazon, Facebook, Google, and others operate search systems and match ads to user interests. For product traffic, Amazon is emerging as the big dog running in front of the Bezos bulldozer to chase small animals off the trail. Facebook — despite its somewhat unstable political and social position — can deliver person centric ads. Google is the champion of free Web search on the desktop and on mobile devices. If you want traffic, you buy and ad. The ad produces traffic. There is chatter that buying ads has other upsides as well, but those are a subject for a future post.

Now back to the Reddit post. Those who buy ads for content related to mattresses and pay the most appear on the results page in Antihero’s online article.

And what about the eRelease “Google is wonderful” post? It is valid, particularly for Google partners and organizations which have an opportunity to participate in the Google ecosystem.

Net net: When organic traffic doesn’t work, one can work with a Google partner who can provide content distribution and a glide path for ad sales. When one grabs part of an elephant, even when one has one’s eyes open and one is wearing rubber boots and a rubber apron, it is difficult to see what you near.

Stephen E Arnold, June 3, 2020

Google and Page Experience

June 2, 2020

Just a short item, a question in reality: What’s a “page experience”? I understand a Web page. This is the digital equivalent of a note card or a sheet of paper. I understand experience; for example, a tumble down a flight of steps is an experience.

But “page experience”? Fuzzy, weird word pairing like those old school America Online word pairs.

Google Will Factor Page Experience into Search Rankings” explains that the phrase means:

page experience will measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. To determine page experience, Google will consider Core Web Vitals, metrics that measure user experience, as well as existing signals, like mobile-friendliness, safe-browsing and HTTPS-security.

Interesting. The “secret” Google ranking algorithm gets another batch of signals to use to determine relevance. Does “relevance” mean which and how many ads can be matched to information retrieved from one of Google’s universal search indexes?

The article reports:

Google says it will still prioritize the best information…

For decades methods like precision and recall, Boolean logic, and controlled vocabularies provided mechanisms for matching indexed information to a user query.

Most people have zero idea how Google determines what information to display. Does it matter? To most people online information is accurate. Jibber jabber like “page experience” is a phrase with a hefty payload of content free suggestivity.

Advertising revenue is the point of the exercise, isn’t it? Perhaps there is a correlation between Amazon’s and Facebook’s growing online advertising businesses and Google verbiage?

Using Google in a quest to find relevant information is an experience in itself.

Stephen E Arnold, June 2, 2020

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