Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What's With Your Identity Crisis? Or: How to Lose Friends in One Blog Post

In the last while, I've found my Facebook friend list has been hijacked by an assortment of randomly named strangers. People pop up in my feed who I have no recollection of befriending or even knowing. After some investigation, I always discover that the new stranger is someone I know, but has lately adopted an obscure nom-de-plume.
Now U is invisibles (I hope I don't get sued for this)

As someone who has at least a grasp on how this Internet magic works, it depresses me that people believe they can escape the purview of social media giants and advertisers by simply changing their name. What people need to understand is that their name is right down on the list of things that Facebook is interested in.

For sure, there are reasons why someone might make such a change in order to escape a stalker, abusive partner or workplace. On the rare occassions I've seen that happen, the person involved has closed their account entirely and started afresh with a pseudonymous account. Aside from those people, everyone else seems to be doing this under an assumption that changing your online name somehow makes you impossible to track.

Advertisers spanning all the popular social media platforms are tracking you regardless of whether you even have an account. How? Many ways, including Cookies, cross-domain (website) tracking, and misguided APIs like the ones that reveal your battery power or ambient light. In the old days, your browser used to ask you whether you wanted to accept a Cookie, but Cookies are now a critical part in making the online experience usable and it's rare to find a website that doesn't serve you multiple of them.

Cookies in themselves are not a bad thing. They keep you logged in, they help you fill your online shopping basket with junk, they help a website remember preferences such as language and search filters.

Here's a current Facebook disclaimer regarding Cookies, although I bet that you absent-mindedly dismissed the alert without reading it:
To help personalize content, tailor and measure ads, and provide a safer experience, we use cookies. By clicking or navigating the site, you agree to allow our collection of information on and off Facebook through cookies. Learn more, including about available controls: Cookies Policy.
"On and off Facebook" meaning Facebook Cookies will track you while you visit other sites. That's regardless of whether you're logged in to Facebook or even have an account. Not logged into Facebook? No problems, take this Cookie that will last longer than your computer/tablet/smartphone. A quick dive into your active cookie cache (yes, it's okay to call it a Cookie jar) will reveal several Facebook cookies with expiration dates 2 years into the future!

I'll say this one more time: Every popular social media platform is tracking you whether you are on or off their website and whether you have or have not got an account with them.

Listen, nobody really cares what your name is. Nobody. You arrived early, your parents were backed into a corner by adoring grandparents (and nursing staff who, after the first day, started to refer to you as Little Baby No Name) and you got what you got.

Ever wondered why Facebook is so concerned about celebrating your birthday and anniversaries, finding out what books you've read and the bands you like and fall over themselves to help you geolocate your photos? It's not because you're a special flower with a beautiful name.

If you really want to confuse or at least slow down Facebook, there are techniques available. They are tedious and irritating. Think about it for a second, do you want to see adverts regarding "beauty secrets that doctors don't want you to know about"? Do you enjoy being constantly nagged about your belly fat? You and Facebook have come a long way; you've invested countless hours telling Facebook what you're interested in and believe me Facebook was listening.

Once again, is really that bad to get adverts from retailers who have stuff you actually want to buy? Some entities do this well, bust most are still rotten at it; a comically bad attempt was when I was served an eBay advert for an HTC phone - it was my auction.

The same is true for Google of course. If, like me, you're alive, then most likely Google found a way to trick you into a Google+ account. Although it's their equivalent social-media product, their ad revenue stream doesn't rely on it (hey but who does rely on Google+?).

Dear Reader, Google+ aside, almost every one of you will have a Google login in some way for Gmail, Drive, Maps or some other service. Just like Facebook, or more accurately orders of magnitude more so than Facebook, Google want to know where you've been and where you're off to, they're not only interested in what you're doing while you're using their services.

It's sure nice of you to tell Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagranny and all those services about your age and gender, they certainly want that and it's interesting to your friends. But social media and advertisers are mining your email, messages and posts for data to render adverts to you. And by the way, regardless of how old you told them you were, they know if you lied because those activities betray you.

If you've carefully read, or most likely quickly scrolled down to this point for the methods to avoid tracking, then this will be the most unrewarding post you read this year. If so, please provide feedback via a Facebook and Twitter by sharing this post. Additionally, please tell your one friend on Google+ how appalling this post was and the terrible things I said about you.

If you don't want to do pure privacy properly by using Tails, then you'll have to do a half arsed attempt with the following techniques. For best results you have to do all this:
  1. Always use your browser's private / privacy mode. The browser will warn you that your ISP can still see everything you're doing.
  2. Log out of every website after each visit. Not just Facebook! Log out of retailer sites (Amazon, eBay) after each visit. Log out of everything. Clear the Cookies. There are browser plugins for managing Cookies. Managing Cookies is hard.
  3. Tell your browser to clear Cookies when you close it. This should happen by default when in privacy mode browsing. Much like point 2, it's a pain because you lose your logged in sessions. Your shopping baskets for sites that you didn't log into will be cleared out too.
  4. Unlike all the things. Don't tell social media sites about yourself. Leave all your groups, quit all the fans pages and remove all the books, movies and artists you liked, read or listened to.
  5. Don't accept cookies by default. Witness the joy of browsing without them. Did I say joy? I meant horror.
  6. Replace your mobile device or PC after each use.
No, encrypting your sessions via HTTPS and even Tor for example doesn't help hide you from advertisers. HTTPS does make it hard for the NSA or GCSQ to see what you're up to. However, if you stick with plain old unencrypted HTTP, perhaps your local Government security agency would be able to better tailor your detainment experience for greater levels of discomfort.

A few years of limited rations while in detention will certainly help with that belly fat.

In short, you should cancel your Internet connection. I don't recommend changing your name via deed poll, but go ahead if you like. The point of this post is to make you feel like privacy is impossible on the Internet. You are not smart enough to defeat these organisations and even if you do, then enjoy the belly-fat adverts.


  1. ... can't find a "Like" button. Maybe you should integrate with facebook comments?

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