Ad Blockers and Privacy

This week Microsoft was given a firm slap across the backside by the European Union for vacuuming up personal data with Windows 10 and showing ads on that platform. The company has 3 months to change their software to stop recording user data.

But one wonders why the EU singled out Microsoft when Google and Facebook have built entire businesses around doing that.

The Internet Advertising Business
Google and Facebook record user data in order to pitch targeted advertising. But Google and Facebook do not sell their data to other companies. They use it for themselves. Twitter allows companies to access general trends, but not specific user data. And some companies can access certain Facebook APIs, with permission from Facebook.

Most other websites, especially media ones like newspapers, sell private data. So do ecommerce companies. So do cell phone companies and even brick and mortar retailers. And companies called data brokers make selling private data their entire business.

Websites use advertising companies and data brokers to gather up user data and then target ads to readers of their website. This data includes what users buy and what websites they visit.  They also record what users search for on their sites, but they would not have access to Google searches.

Facebook and Google are most effective at this kind of user tracking because they use advanced mathematics called graph theory to model relationships between who friends and connections and who has clicked like or follow.

This user data powers targeted advertising that is very effective because it presents ads that are based on what readers have shown themselves to be interested in. So it is better than spending money on ads on print media or TV or radio, where people throw up a lot of ad dollars and hope that some of it sticks.

For example, if a reader is reading fashion articles on a web site and has purchased shoes from an ecommerce site then the advertiser might show that person ads for other expensive shoes when they read another web page. That person is more likely to buy shoes than another person who has shown no interest in that.

The largest of these advertising companies is DoubleClick, who is owned by Google. Of course Google does not boast about that when they tout their technical prowess as the whole business of advertising is rather sleazy in many people’s view.

Ad Blockers and Privacy Widgets
There is a way to opt out of advertising and stop companies from tracking you as you navigate the web. That is to use ad blockers and other privacy tools.

The way that ad blockers and privacy widgets work is they block the IP address of advertising and data tracking companies. That simple trick defeats an ability of a web site to show advertising. This is because ads are generated by servers at the ad company and not by the web site that one is viewing. So the text of the web page and the images still work on the page the viewer wants to read, but the advertising is blocked. You can see this on some web pages when you use ad blockers as it leaves a big hole in their page. On other pages it it not so noticeable.

ad blockers and privacy

Trackers fall into these categories:

Ad servers - these do two things. They put cookies in your browser that track what websites you visit by assigning you a user id that only they know about. Also their ad servers send out HTML and JPEG and other images to make ads show up on web pages. These ads are tailored to the individual.

Beacons - are usually just one line of HTML code and some JavaScript in a web page. When you open a web page the beacon requests a tiny object, perhaps an image that they do not even display, from the beacon’s web server. That way the beacon can track what websites you visit.

Analytics/behavior tracking - these companies do things like record what parts of a web page you click. That helps the website determine what parts of their site are attractive to users and what parts users are avoiding. That helps websites improve their pages to match what people are interested in.

Affiliate marketing - are companies that make money when people click on their graphics or text and then forward that traffic to another company who has a product to sell. The affiliate receives a commisions for that.

Ad blockers can also block commenting systems like Disqus and video and media sites like YouTube, so it’s important to not block everything when you install a tool like Ghostery unless you want all that disabled too.

Ad Blockers: Too Complicated for Average People
People who have some understanding of technology have learned that they can use ad blockers and privacy software to block data tracking. But how to make that work is different on each platform.  And average people who use the internet do not have an understanding of this as would people who are more technically savvy.

For example, on Windows or Ubuntu users can add Adblock Plus and Ghostery to Chrome and Firefox. There are no technical limitations there that limit what developers of these ad blockers can do, unlike Apple operating systems.

A user on Windows or Ubuntu can also make their own ad blocker easily. Just copy the IP address of ad sites into the hosts file. The hosts file overrides the IP address of web sites. So you set those values to something like thus blocking all of that. You can download lists of advertisers from different websites like this one.

Next we discuss two different popular blocking tools: Ghostery and Adblock Plus

Ghostery targets not just ad sites but trackers of all kinds. It works as a browser plugin on Chrome and Firefox while on iOS it is actually its own web browser. That means if you want to block ads on the iPad you need to use Ghostery to read web pages and not Chrome or Safari.

One nice feature about Ghostery is it shows you a list of what websites it is blocking. That is good information to educate people as it shows exactly how much websites are tracking people. One would be really surprised to see how prevalent tracking is.

Adblock Plus
Fortune.com and other sites have begun to redirect people away from their site when they are using ad blockers. This is because advertising is how these publications earn revenue. Having people block ads is a big problem for sites who do not charge a subscription fee, and not many sites charge a subscription fee. Those free sites have no other way to earn money to pay for their computer equipment and writers than advertising.

This has grown into such a problem for media companies that Google and others have even met with Adblock Plus to try to negotiate access. Google is very angry that they are blocking the domain googleleadservice.com. That serves up those sponsored ads you see when you use Google search and is how Google earns the vast majority of its money.

Given pressure from media companies and advertisers, Ad Blocker Plus agreed to whitelist certain domains, if they paid for that. One could argue they have become some kind of extortionists demanding ransom payments to unblock media companies. But you could also argue that media companies are the real criminals here because they are using private data without asking anyone’s permission.

iOS, OS X and Ad Blockers
Apple has always been different than Microsoft and Google in limiting developer access to their operating system. For example, you cannot edit the hosts file on the Mac or iPad. You can do that on Windows and Linux. On Android a developer can do that by plugging the device into a USB cable and then using the Android developer tools.

Because Apple in general does not give developers low level access to networking functions, Adblock Plus or Ghostery do not work as browser extensions on iOS or Mac OS X. Instead you have two options. You can use Ghostery as a browser and not use Chrome at all. Or you can use a proxy server app like Weblock.

Weblock routes all your HTTP traffic through their proxy server located on the domain wl.is. There it blocks ad and tracker sites based on their blacklist of blocked IP address. To make it work you have to manually set the IP address of their proxy server under the Wi-Fi settings on your iPad.

All of this works well, except you would have to note that it would not work when their proxy server gets more traffic than they can handle. And keeping that running costs money. So, to pay for all that equipment they charge $2 for their app on iTunes. But in order to grow their user base at times they give that away for free.

Ad Blockers and Bandwidth
Software companies in Silicon Valley, where there are cars that drive themselves and fast internet, might be forgetting that the internet does not work as fast all over the world and not every person has the latest iPad or Samsung with lots of memory and a fast processor. So those companies and media companies fill their web pages with trackers. Each of those requires reaching out to a different IP address to assemble the completed web page. All of that might run slow for certain people.

So it is a good idea for people in poorer foreign countries where people might be using 3G cellular internet or have slow DSL or cable speeds to use ad blockers. (Often those countries have slow internet because they have monopoly internet providers there who have no incentive to speed up the internet or expand coverage. That is why Google and Facebook are putting up balloons and drones to try to bring internet to all parts of the world.) Otherwise web pages will load slowly. And ad blockers work around the world as they maintain blacklists of advertisers in most languages and most countries.

Wrapping up, ad blockers are probably not going to do a lot of damage to media businesses as most people do not understand how to use those. You probably understand it yourself, since you are reading this, but maybe your aging parents do not. And people who are not well educated do not understand that either. One website estimated that there are 200 million people using ad blockers worldwide as of 2015. But Facebook has 1.5 billion users.

But in Europe these media companies are already under fire for violating privacy regulations. The guiding principle in the EU is that persons must opt in to tracking. Google’s position is they have to explicitly opt out. And in the USA there are no privacy laws with jurisdiction over this issue. But as you wait for the EU to actually change the way Google and Facebook track data you can cut off their ability to do that altogether by using ad blockers. And remember to erase you cookies frequently. Doing that erases you history and identity so that those trackers that might still work cannot figure out who you are and where you have been.

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About the author:

Karolis Liucveikis

Karolis Liucveikis - experienced software engineer, passionate about behavioral analysis of malicious apps.

Author and general operator of PCrisk's "Removal Guides" section. Co-researcher working alongside Tomas to discover the latest threats and global trends in the cyber security world. Karolis has experience of over five years working in this branch. He attended KTU University and graduated with a degree in Software Development in 2017. Extremely passionate about technical aspects and behavior of various malicious applications. Contact Karolis Liucveikis.

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