The blogger and the (cookie) jar

For a while now, I’ve been unable to post comments at *.blogspot.com blogs. Even anonymous comments, in blogs that allow them. Alas, when writing a comment and clicking the ‘Submit’ button, the page was just reloaded, and no trace of my comment was left behind. Weird is an understatement. Puzzled as I was, now I have discovered the reason: unlike *.wordpress.com blogs, to post a comment, any kind of comment, at blogger, you have to allow third party cookies! Yep, to comment you must open yourself to the possibility of “anonymous” surveillance (even more than what you are already exposed for just using the internet). Luckily, there’s an easy fix (if you’re a Firefox user, that is): install the Cookie Monster addon. Then disable third party cookies globally (Edit -> Preferences -> Privacy), and go submit a comment. It’ll reload the page, but the addon icon in FF’s bottom bar will tell you that the page tried to set a third party cookie. Allow it to do this always. This way, you disable third party cookies by default, while still allowing it for those sites that require it, viz. blogger. And presto, problem solved!

Addendum: I think this only happens when the comment form shows up after the “original” post, like so, and not when the comments are written in a separate page, like so. Blogger is weird…

Welcome to fascism

If there were times when I questioned the usefulness of twitter, believe me, they’re long gone. First I got this video of yet another interview with Assange. It’s overall very interesting, but here’s the real nice bit: “Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented” (1:50 minute mark on the video).

Besides Facebook, he talks about his extradition case, Wikileaks’ relationship with mainstream press (viz. The Guardian and the NYT), but the most interesting bit is the final one: when he’s asked what is his greatest enemy, he replies “ignorance”. For in his view, peoples don’t like wars, so the only way to go to war, is to “fool the people” into going to war. I think he just revealed the true seed behind Wikileaks.

Moving a bit back to Facebook, also via twitter comes this pearl: Facebook’s form to law enforcement. In my most humble opinion, if this shows anything, it is that to Facebook at least, handling data to the authorities is no longer (if it ever has been) an exceptional event; rather, it has become commonplace, a routine task if you will. Adding the fact that this kind of disclosures do not add any value to Facebook’s shareholders, it is then an annoyance that has to be dealt with, preferably with the minimum amount of hassle. And thus Facebook becomes “the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented”.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention today’s main news piece: the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. I’d have much preferred to see him brought to justice and tried according to the rule of law, but then again, he is a (US-)trained Mujahideen, who probably doesn’t really fit the “come peacefully” type. But all that notwithstanding, given all the cheerful and sometimes outright extatic reaction to the death of a human being, one cannot stop and wonder: have we (and US people in particular) become that which we set out to fight against in the first place?

EDIT TO ADD: not even on purpose, Facebook deletes “We’re all Osama Bin Laden page”. I do not wish to moralize on merits or lack thereof of such page (which I have not seen), but just think about the fate of all the data related to it (e.g. the identities of all those who “liked” it). Chilling thought!

Facebook explained

Free transcription of part of the talk:

[...] give a rat a lever that dispenses food pallet every time and he’ll get one when he’s hungry. But if you give one that only sometimes dispenses that food pallet, he’ll just hit until he runs out of steam because he’s not sure of what the trick is and he thinks he’s gonna get it if he keeps banging on that lever.

To see how this applies to facebook, replace the lever with you posting some bit of hitherto private information on facebook, and the food pallet with the jolt of feedback you (sometimes) get as a result of what you have posted. Scary thought, isn’t it?

EDIT: I corrected a number typos I did when transcribing…

Three new apps

First, we start with Google Sharing. Its stated purpose is to diminish the amount of information Google collects about you, while at the same being completely transparent to the end user. It achieves this using a Firefox addon the redirects google searches to a special proxy, that will modify it so as to hide its origin, before sending it back to google. When used with SSL, this ensures that not even the proxy can violate the user’s privacy, because the request is encrypted from Google’s server to the end user’s computer. More information can be found on the homepage and the FAQ, which is very clearly written, even to the non-geek user.

The second app, is the smplayer. I was an avid vlc user, but this “frontend” to mplayer seems (thus far at least) to throw vlc into a distant second place. It has nice features, and one in particular, that is totally awesome: it can automatically download subtitles for you! In a matter of seconds. Awesome.

Last, but surely not least the third app: for those you who, like the author, used Windows and Winamp, and then Linux and XMMS, and thought the latter had been cast into an inescapable oblivion, here’s audacious! Not much to say, better go see for yourself. I, for one, have found my new favourite audio player!

audacious

Paranoid tip of the week: ScroogleSSL

Scroogle is a sort of “web-wrapper” of Google. It essentially acts as an interface, that performs ordinary google searches while (literally) detaching the client executing the search from google’s prying eyes. To make this even better, it allows (unlike google) for searches to be done with https, and not only plain http (accessing https://google.com will just redirect you to the normal unencrypted google page). And now for the fun part: how to add SSL enabled Scroogle to Firefox search bar. First download the “Add to Search Bar” Firefox extension, then restart Firefox and go to the SSL Scroogle page, right click on the search form, and select “Add to Search Bar”. Select a name for the new search engine, and you’re done!

Privacy: Don’t be evil

Virtually every single time I’ve mentioned online privacy related concerns to anyone—even computer engineers—the reaction I get is similar: a shrug, followed by comments like: “yeah right, like that’s ever going to be a problem…”.

I don’t think this is because people stopped valuing their privacy. Rather, most people don’t seem to realize the extent of the lack of privacy they experiment when going online. This is hardly surprising: after all, in the comfort (and privacy!) of your homes, using a computer is not an experience likely to be perceived as privacy threatening—in fact, it may well happen the opposite, because you’re not interacting with actual people, but sitting comfortably behind a screen. This must be the reason, I’m led to surmise, why so many people on Facebook will happily provide their personal details—i.e. accept an invitation to befriend—pretty much anyone else, including a green plastic frog. The meagre and dwindling online privacy we have now is perceived to be higher than that which we enjoy in our “away from keyboard” lives.

But it gets better—or rather, worse—than that. How? When the bulk of your online activities, be those web browsing, email, calender schedule, and even DNS queries(!) are all done by the same corporation, viz. Google. And I know that for instance in the case of Google Public DNS, they state that “In the permanent logs, we don’t keep personally identifiable information or IP information.”. But if they wanted to do that (say, they got a subpoena from law enforcement), they could do that. That’s a fact. And history shows us, time and time again, that whenever power can be abused, it will be abused. But it gets even worse.

How? Well, everything I mentioned so far about Google, are all potential problems. Right? Well, that potential came a lot closer to reality when Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, uttered these words:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place

Now think for a second: it’s Google’s CEO who said that! If that does not wake us up against the danger of anything remotely resembling online privacy disappearing into oblivion, then I don’t know what will.

Oh by the way, a couple of years ago, some folks over CNET did this little experiment: they used the Google search engine to search about Schmidt himself; the results of said search having pissed the hell out of him. By his own twisted logic, he was doing a lot of things he shouldn’t be doing…

So what is the average computer user suppose to make out of this? The interview in The Register, where the quote comes from, ends like this:

CNBC asks Schmidt: “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?” But he answers by scoffing at those who don’t trust Google at all.
Not that you’d expect anything less. As always, Schmidt’s holier-than-thou attitude is wonderfully amusing. Except that it’s not.

The way I see it, he’s acting a whole lot like a drug dealer: he knows better than to use the stuff he sells. Continuing with the analogy for a little bit, when CNET forced his own drug onto him, he exacted revenge on them. But what are those of us that don’t head a multi billion dollar company supposed to do, when that same drug is so overwhelmingly forced upon us? That is a question still left open.