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Browser wars, Privacy Day, malicious tracking prevention: AdGuard's digest

Congrats folks! January 28th was the globally celebrated Data Protection Day. Make sure you celebrate it properly by reviewing your online behavior to satisfy the safetly guidelines.

On 26 April 2006 the Council of Europe decided to launch a Data Protection Day to be celebrated each year on 28 January, the date on which the Council of Europe's data protection convention, known as "Convention 108", was opened for signature. Data Protection Day is now celebrated globally and is called Privacy Day outside Europe.

The purpose of Data Privacy Day is to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices. It is currently observed in the United States, Canada, Nigeria, Israel and 47 European countries.

Of course it's clear that absolutely every day of any year must be a Data Protection day. But the "official" date is quite an occasion to give it an extra thought, to review your habits and practicies regarding personal data safety, to test some new tools, to boost your understanding of the problem. We wish you safe online experience and hope you'll never have to deal with any data abuse!

And now to the meat of the digest.

Chrome's high throne becomes shaky

In the previous digest we've written about the new secure browser released by creators of the DuckDuckGo search engine, and about how the Brave's privacy-oriented browser is gaining market share.

And all the while the market leader is having an uneasy time. Who ever reads Google's blog about new Chrome releases? Apparently, a bunch of geeks and IT media reporters do. But a recent Google's post had made a small British tabloid publish at least two pieces ([1], [2]), calling readers to update their browser. No wonder: Google beat their own record claiming several dozens of high risk vulnerabilities in the app. Once in a lifetime, even a British tabloids says something sound. Update your Chrome browser, if you haven't yet.

A web browser is your entry point into the wonderful, but also dangerous digital universe. The choice of the browser you use at home and at work dictates not only the perofrmance and convenience, but also the security of your data. It's useful to audit it from time to time. If you are not a browser expert yourself, obtain a habit to read experts' reviews from time to time. Type your favorite browser's name into the Google News' search box — to see if it was recently compromised, hacked, if it leaked data, if there were any serious security problems found. And, of course, install the updates to all the browsers you use as soon as they arrive.

Meanwhile, the Microsoft Edge browser gains 10.22% of the desktop browser market share, the best result in its history. And Google Chrome in November, 2021 became the only browser that had lost some of its audience.

It may lose even more yet. People have finally discovered the fact that Google had never tried to hide: the "incognito" mode does not make them invisible online and does not prevent tracking. Alphabet's CEO Sundar Pichai will have to explain this to the federal court.

On the other hand, there has been found at least "seven reasons to stop using Microsoft Edge". The author of the piece highlights a really important turn in Microsoft's web policy: "Microsoft seems to be grooming Edge to be a shopping tool rather than a web browser". Besides, even if you already use Microsoft's broswer, you'll be seeing intrusive and aggressive ads of a Microsoft browser. Ads that directly insult Google and their Chrome.

It is good that privacy-oriented browsers emerge, evolve, and expand. But now we can hardly afford the luxury to put all eggs in one basket and trust one single vendor when it comes to personal data security. So a mainstream browser like Chrome armed with trustworthy third party extensions seems like a solid option.

One doesn't simply turn location tracking off

Yet another lawsuit to Google: it kept tracking users' location after they'd switched off Location History on their Android devices. This had been happening "between 2014 and 2019", but the four attorneys that filed separate lawsuits hope to get Google punished for making people think that their location information was not being tracked, while it was. The same old lesson here: the basic device settings might be more of a decoration then an actual set of controls over your data.

And a few days ago, Google has reacted to these lawsuits and published a blog post calling them inaccurate, outdated, and mischaracterizing Google's services. The post is quite angry, but quite honest: yes, Google says, we do need your location data, so what, everybody does. But if you put some effort into it, you can at least gain some illusion of privacy. Here are Google's tips on managing the access to your location data.

What are popular messengers reporting to FBI?

A dubious document titled “Lawful Access” is being cited by various media outlets for the last month or so. They say, it describes ”the kinds of user data various secure messaging apps can share at the request of law enforcement agencies”. It was “obtained by a group called Property of the People through an FOIA request”, whatever that means. I strongly suspect that it’s a fake concocted by people related to some of the mentioned messengers, but if you can you can make some use out of it, here it is.

Apple Air Tag can be used for tracking you

We are already used to being tracked by our devices. But what about being tracked by a device planted into your pocket by some weird guy (or gal), like in a cheap spy movie? Apple Air Tag is a small thingy meant to be attached to keys, wallets, dentures, kids — all the things you tend to lose and would like to know where they are and where you've left them. But a model named Brooks Nader found out that she was being tracked by an Air Tag device that someone else had dropped into her coat's pocket while she had been bar-hopping in New York.

Let's give Apple some credit where it's due: they anticipated this kind of abuse and tried to protect people: "To discourage tracking without your knowledge, Find My will notify you if an unknown AirTag or other Find My network accessory is seen moving with you over time. An AirTag that isn't with the person who registered it for an extended period of time will also play a sound when moved so you can find it, even if you don't use an iOS device".

We are all overloaded with notifications nowadays, but we should somehow manage to pay attention to those that matter. Find My is an official Apple's app to manage items with Air Tags, it is integrated into iOS and can be turned on in the settings. There is also a free app by Apple for Android called Tracker Detect.

What if the golden era of privacy finally came?

A sudden piece of utopia: what would our digital experience and the life itself look like if the golden era of privacy and security began? The article highlights the being-recently-developed privacy-related technologies like privacy preserving IDs and control over ads. As well as some recently recognized human rights like the right to be forgotten, the right not to be working outside the working hours, and, after all, the right not to worry about their privacy since it is not being attacket all the time anymore.

US senators go after targeted ads — and fail

And we've saved the best for last: this January, three US senators introduced the so-called "Banning Surveillance Advertising Act". I'll take the liberty to predict that the bill will not become a law since it virtually annihilates targeted ads on the Web. It...

…prohibits advertising networks and facilitators from using personal data to target advertisements, with the exception of broad location targeting to a recognized place, such as a municipality. The bill also prohibits advertisers from targeting ads based on protected class information, such as race, gender, and religion, and personal data purchased from data brokers. The bill makes explicit that contextual advertising, which is advertising based on the content a user is engaging with, is allowable.

Well, what can we say about this yet another utopia? I'll just remind you that "Google reported 27% higher U.S. lobbying expenditures for 2021 compared to 2020, spending $9.6 million for the year". Google and Facebook are also "biggest spenders on EU lobbying". Targeted ads are here to stay, and your data is to be harvested and sold.

Some good news and some advice

Meanwhile, in the EU its police agency, Europol, is being forced to delete the personal data it has collected on the scale of mass surveillance.

The unprecedented finding from the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) targets what privacy experts are calling a "big data ark" containing billions of points of information. Sensitive data in the ark has been drawn from crime reports, hacked from encrypted phone services and sampled from asylum seekers never involved in any crime.

As usual, the opinions got devided, the search of the balance between security and privacy seems to take its place among the eternal questions that have no certain answer. Just remember that you do not have to be a criminal to get under surveillance. It's time to get proactive, to get it clear what is important for you and what your best interests are. There is no universal solution for everybody, but at least there are still enough tools to implement the solution you choose for yourself.

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