Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Privacy Badger

It doesn't take much to make me shudder. Lately all it takes is the sight of people using unprotected browsers, particularly those on their smartphones, to access the web. Many of them don't care, but the vast majority is totally oblivious to just how it takes part in massive tracking operations by massive companies each and every time it accesses the Internet.
I have discussed this problem on these pages before. Thus far there were two core protections one could deploy to defend one's privacy from all this tracking: various internal browser setups, as described here; and tools such as those provided by Ghostery and Disconnect, as described here. I will add that since the last time I mentioned Ghostery, their free Ghostery application for iOS started offering Ghostery grade tracking blockages on everything one does over their iGadget (as opposed to receiving protection only when using Ghostery's own browser app). The caveat, though, is that this all inclusive protection is available on wifi connections only and only on newer iGadgets (my old iPhone 3GS, for example, does not enjoy this type of protection). Mobile Internet usage over 3G/4G still suffers.

This post is here to report a third player joining the field occupied by Ghostery and Disconnect. And this player is Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF (adequate disclosure: yours truly is a proud EFF member). The advantages of EFF joining the scene are clear: EFF's record in standing for the rights of users speaks for itself; and unlike some other players, EFF is not in it for the money.
The product EFF brings into the scene is called Privacy Badger. Essentially, it's another tool for blocking naughty trackers; the catch is in the way it works. Unlike Ghostery or Disconnect, which check your Internet connections against a regularly updated blacklist of offensive trackers, Privacy Badger is a learning tool. If I understand its operation correctly, it allows all new connections in; however, once it notes a connection being active in more than one website, it identifies it as a tracker and blocks it. Given the way it works, there is some potential for Privacy Badger's functionality to be greatly expanded.
At this stage, and we are talking about a recently released alpha version here, Privacy Badger is available only as an add on for Chrome and Firefox. Sadly, there is no support yet for mobile platforms, and according to what EFF is saying we should not expect to see support for non open source browsers (your Internet Explorers and Safaris). I suspect iOS will see nothing out of Privacy Badger, which is probably my biggest gripe.
What do I make of Privacy Badger? It is too early for me to offer an opinion that matters. Privacy Badger has the potential to be the best privacy tool out there, especially given its potential for non intrusive blocking. However, at this stage I think it is too early to put one's entire trust in this tool. One area where Privacy Badger contradicts my normal way of work with the Internet is when it comes to keeping cookies: while I set my browsers to delete all cookies when closing, Privacy Badger relies on cookies being gathered to do its work. I can change my habits to enable Privacy Badger to do a better job, but in my opinion I am better off sticking to my more paranoid ways than putting my trust in this new tool.
I therefore still consider Ghostery to be my preferred and overall best counter-tracker tool (most obviously in iOS!). That said, I did install Privacy Badger on my browsers and I am keeping an eye on it.

Image: EFF, Creative Commons licence

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