A clever browser extension disrupts the technology big companies use to track and profile users by ‘poisoning’ the data given to them.
A new study by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota explores the concept of data poisoning, a method of inserting inaccurate data into a data-driven technology.
‘Data poisoning harms performance by providing a technology with data that was created with the intention of thwarting the technology,’ the study, Data Leverage: A Framework for Empowering the Public in its Relationship with Technology Companies, says.
Researchers said the most accessible form of data poisoning involves a person using technology in a deceptive manner to lie about their personal attributes and preferences.
One such application that allows people to do this is AdNauseam, an extension that automatically clicks on every advert on the webpage.
By doing this, the extension makes it seem like the user is interested in absolutely everything, therefore sending an excess of inaccurate information, making it harder for big tech algorithms to construct a profile of that person.
‘As the collected data gathered shows an omnivorous click-stream, user tracking, targeting and surveillance become futile,’ AdNauseum’s creators said.
As predicted, Google is not a fan of this software and announced in 2017 that it had banned the extension from its Chrome Web Store.
Despite this, the extension’s creators have found a way around it, which they detail on their website.
‘Google has banned AdNauseam from its web store and have left users with no access to their data. Follow these instructions to install it anyway,’ they write.
Big tech companies like Google and Facebook have faced criticism for years, and the debate around the ethics of profiting from user data is ongoing.
Amnesty International has described it as a ‘surveillance-based business model’ that is incompatible with the right to privacy and poses a threat to freedom of opinion, thought and expression.
‘Google and Facebook dominate our modern lives – amassing unparalleled power over the digital world by harvesting and monetizing the personal data of billions of people. Their insidious control of our digital lives undermines the very essence of privacy and is one of the defining human rights challenges of our era,’ Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International said.
Following pressure from regulators, Google said it was taking steps towards a more ‘privacy-first web’.
Last year, the search engine announced it would be phasing out third-party cookies, which track user behaviour and gather data.
‘Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products,’ Google said in an announcement this week, adding that this will come into effect within the next two years.
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