new web technologies

How To Blur Your Search Tracks On Google

Like a lot of people, you may be vaguely uncomfortable with how much Google knows about you. It makes a great deal of money mining your search history in order to help various companies serve you targeted ads, and even though it doesn't sell your data to advertisers now, you never know if it might change its mind sometime down the road.

So what can you do about it? The Boston-based privacy company Abine has one solution. Earlier this year it launched Private Search, a service designed to shield your Google queries so the search giant can't link what you’re searching for to its increasingly detailed profile of you.

Private Search is easy to set up and use. The best part is that you don't really have to change your behavior--or even log out of YouTube and Gmail—to get it working. 

But it's not perfect. Private Search currently only works with Firefox, for instance, and it's not clear when—or if—it will ever work with other popular browsers such as Chrome. It also won't protect you on other search engines like Bing or Yahoo, although Abine says it's working on that.

You have to sign up and opt in to the service, and its protection—against a still somewhat hypothetical threat—isn't foolproof against every possible tracking technology. For instance, Private Search won't shield you from canvas fingerprinting, a tricky new user-tracking technique that's emerged over the past year at some sites (though not Google).

Why Private Search?

Perhaps in response to public pressure, Google offers users concerned about privacy various opt-out options. Users can opt out of ad preferences and disable their search history in Google's dashboard.

And so far, the search engine behemoth does not share the information it tracks with data brokers, and no data changes hands when advertisers target specific demographics using Google’s ad network. But the possibility of accidentally leaking information still exists—for example, if you create an account on a website after clicking on a targeted ad, you may be unwittingly giving demographic information to that company.

As Abine CTO Andrew Sudbury put it to me:

Your search history is part of what's being used to create a profile of you, your demographics, your propensity to buy certain types of services, and all of these data profiles are slowly and inexorably being exposed to more and more commercial uses because that's just the way the market forces are pushing them.

Additionally, mass market profiling is increasingly becoming more invasive in ways that aren’t always easy to either predict or immediately pinpoint. This isn't just an abstract threat. I spoke with Adi Kamdar, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he described the problem eloquently:

What we've seen when it comes to data brokers is we see them targeting poor populations or certain disenfranchised populations or people who are older or more subject to falling for scams or falling for payday loans or taking financially risky investments, or something along those lines. That's the sort of population that should be most worried about this but is probably the least exposed to these sorts of tools or information about privacy tools or data brokers.

Private Search is an easy choice for your less technically-savvy friends or family members who may be more vulnerable to potential future threats, and also less likely to hear about them.

Do Not Track Me

Launched in late January, Private Search is part of Abine's freemium privacy suite Blur, which combines the company's previously separate privacy tools DoNotTrackMe and MaskMe. Blur includes tools for masking email addresses, your phone number and credit card data; blocking tracking by data miners; and managing online passwords.

The Private Search tool allows users to tap into a randomized pool of made-up identities—ones that come with prepopulated tracking cookies and user-agent strings. Cookies allow websites to track an individual's browsing activity and to identify return viewers, while user agent strings provide sites with information about your browser and operating system.

Using fake identities prevents all that from happening.

How To Blur Your Searches

After you’ve set up the Blur extension in Firefox and opted into Private Search, you're ready to go.

Private Search provides a new made-up identity for each individual search. It then funnels the request through an SSL tunnel, so that the search is encrypted—even Abine can't see what you're searching for. And every phrase or topic you search appears as if it is unconnected to previous searches, since each query is sent through Abine’s server with an entirely different IP address (which is yet another avenue by which websites can track people).

Your search requests are modified before leaving your browser in a way that breaks the identity connection between your searches and the rest of your tabs. That means you can keep your YouTube tab open with all of your videos, and stay logged into Gmail, all without allowing Google to link your search queries with your account (and identity).

One thing to look out for: Private Search will protect queries made through Firefox's search bar, but you won't necessarily know it. Sudbury told me the extension isn't currently tweaking the search-results page to include the blue-colored text that lets you know Private Search is on the case.

Other Ways To Evade The Search Police

"One of the real problems with privacy on the Web is that it's simply too hard," Sudbury says. "Companies say, ‘look, all of these controls exist, so people don't need to be protected,’ but these controls are like ridiculous. To implement them is ridiculous.”

This makes Private Search a great option for casual Web users with limited technical knowledge or a low tolerance for disabling and resetting plugins. If you're so inclined, though, there are plenty of (somewhat more cumbersome) alternatives to the Blur tool:

  1. Browsers such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage don’t track users the way that Google does, but the results provided are considerably less refined.
  2. Using a VPN offers protection from hackers at cafes, and swaps your IP address with that of your VPN’s, but it will not hide your identity from Google.
  3. Plugins such as AdBlock Plus, Privacy Badger, Ghostery, and Disconnect—as well as some of Blur's other features—can help stop some types of online tracking, though they may render some sites unusable, and they don’t block everything. These solutions work best for more sophisticated users, as it is sometimes necessary to disable the trackers in order to use specific sites.

To be clear, Private Search isn’t a solution for, say, Chinese dissidents or anyone else wanting to hide their identity from the government. In such cases, the Tor browser is a better option. Tor prevents Google (or anyone else) from knowing your IP address, it keeps no history, and it clears cookies and cache between each session. Tails is an entire operating system that operates using Tor.

But Tor is slower than other browsers due to the way it reroutes traffic to preserve anonymity. In addition, features such as video playing are disabled, certain sites have restrictions (such as captchas), and some sites even block traffic from Tor.

Google Chrome’s Incognito mode doesn't store cookies, but it also doesn't hide your IP address. Additionally, you’d need to open a new Incognito tab with a clear cache and new set of cookies for each search to avoid them being linked with one another during each session. And using Incognito mode requires you to re-enter passwords for password-protected sites for each session.

Google also recommends blocking or deleting cookies, disallowing them from certain sites, and clearing browsing data.

Lead image by ilouque

Date: Fri, 17 Apr 2015 13:29:07 -0700
Author: :: Category: Web

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Pebble Smartstraps Are Coming—And Here's What They Might Do

One of the most intriguing—yet still underappreciated—elements of Pebble's latest flagship smartwatch, the Pebble Time, was the late-breaking announcement that the gadget will support "smartstraps."

Pebble Time

Smartstraps are basically hardware extensions to the smartwatch that can augment its capabilities or provide brand-new ones. The concept is pretty simple—think of a watchband equipped with, say, GPS sensors, Wi-Fi radios, extra batteries or other sensors. These smartstraps can plug into the magnetic charging port on the back of the Pebble Time, which doubles as a data connection. 

The possibilities are limited only by makers' imaginations (and technological reality). It is, of course, still early—the Time itself doesn't ship until sometime next month—and so there are way more smartstrap ideas floating around than practical examples of the technology.

But it's a fascinating, if clearly still evolving, space. So let's see what smartstrap developers are thinking of strapping up.

What’s Up Pebble’s Sleeve

There’s one place you can be sure that will have smartstraps on offer, and that’s Pebble itself.

Eric Migicovsky Pebble credit: Pebble

“It's only been a few short weeks since we announced smartstraps, but we're pretty pumped with how it's going,” Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky told me via email. “Pebble is working on a few projects internally, but we haven't made any of them public yet.”

While he wouldn’t say for sure what Pebble has planned, Migicovsky offered up some hints:

Imagine GPS, so you could track your runs and rides without taking your phone along, or a battery strap, increasing Pebble Time's battery from seven days to…maybe a month? Then there is always the opportunity for hackers and makers to create straps that bring a special, unique sensor or functionality for a particular use case, like a certain health situation.

Migicovsky didn't elaborate on what he meant by “a certain health situation,” but it's not hard to imagine some of the possibilities. Perhaps we'll see straps that can measure a wearer's pulse, blood oxygen saturation, body temperature—pretty much the bevy of biometric readings boasted by fitness trackers. And while it may be a bit technologically trickier, a glucose reading smartstrap for diabetics isn't outside of the realm of possibility. 

Features like that could give wearers more insight into how their bodies react to exercise, or maybe if they're coming down with something. The more sophisticated the sensor, the more complicated the insights can become; it's conceivable that a smartstrap could warn a wearer about an impending heart attack. 

Xadow and Spark

To help good ideas go from concept to reality, Pebble announced a $1 million fund in March that will go towards smartstrap developers seeking crowdfunding. After a month, though, Migicovsky tells me that only one project—TimeDock, a charging cradle for the Pebble Time—has received any portion of Pebble’s smartstrap fund. Why a non-smartstrap earned some of Pebble's funding isn't clear—but, if nothing else, it seems like a nice way to charge your watch.

Independent efforts, however, appear to be moving forward. Seeed, based in China, is working on an adapter to connect its modular hardware platform, Xadow, with the Pebble Time via its smartstrap port. Xadow’s modules include barometric sensors, NFC chips, and accelerometers, among over a dozen others; determined makers could probably cobble together some interesting smartstraps with those tools.

Seeed's Xadow modular platform will be compatible with the Pebble Time via an in-development adapter.

Meanwhile, there’s also Spark, a San Francisco Internet-of-Things startup, whose staff hackers threw together a cellular connectivity smartstrap ... in an afternoon.

“When Pebble was announcing Time, they talked about their smartstraps, and we were building the Electron at the same time,” Zach Supalla, Sparks’ CEO, told me in a phone interview. The Electron is Spark’s recently Kickstarted cellular connectivity development kit, meant to help makers connect electronics to wireless networks.

“We thought, oh, this would be a really cool use case,” said Supalla. “Let’s hack together a prototype and show how a Pebble could theoretically be not tethered to a phone and connect directly to a cellular network.”

The cellular connectivity "hackstrap," made in an afternoon by Spark.

The prototype won’t be for sale from Spark anytime soon—or, really, anytime at all, since the company's main mission is creating tools for companies who are building connected products.

“Really for us, it’s about inspiring people to think about creating products like that themselves,” Supalla said. “We’d love to see somebody take the Electron, which is our development kit, and use it to create something like that as a commercial product.”

Strap Hacks

So that leaves the rest of us—non-professional makers who have big ideas. Browsing through the Pebble Smartstrap forums reveals a wealth of concepts, but only a few users who might have the technical know-how to try and get them made.

Some of the most repeated suggestions offered by the forum’s enthusiastic posters include a game controller of some kind, as well as solar energy or kinetic energy harvesters that could be used to extend the Pebble Time’s battery.

“Oh yeah, I heard about the game controller one,” Migicovsky told me. “That sounds ridiculously cool. Right now a lot of people are gaming on Pebble with apps like Pixel Miner.

Pixel Miner, a popular game for the Pebble, could get even more interesting with a smartstrap controller.

"[That] will be even cooler with a controller,” he added.

As for straps that charge the Pebble via alternative energy sources, Migicovsky said:

I'd put kinetic or other energy harvesters in the moonshot category. Hard to do right now, but worth investigating.

The Pebble Timetable

Even though the Pebble Time will hit our wrists in about a month, the wait for smartstraps will be a good deal longer—even from Pebble itself. “It will probably take 6-12 months to see more smartstraps hit the market,” Migicovsky said. “Hardware is hard!”

In the meantime, the CEO agreed that if Pebblers wanted to get smartstraps a bit earlier, a 3D printer might not be a bad investment.

That’s not a brush off for amateur hardware makers who want to jump into the smartstraps game. While not running the company, Migicovsky is getting in on the strap hacking himself.

“I'm working on a little hack to make a Geiger counter smartstrap,” he said. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

Pebble Time and smartstrap images courtesy of Pebble; Xadow image courtesy of Seeed; Electron image courtesy of Spark; Pixel Miner image courtesy of Doctor Monolith on the Pebble App Store

Date: Fri, 17 Apr 2015 11:49:55 -0700
Author: :: Category: Wear

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Google Doubles Down On Deep Links For App Discovery

Google is finally getting deep into deep links. Starting this week, the search giant will add mobile-app links to its search results on Android phones. Specifically, the results will prompt Android users to install relevant apps that contain information related to their queries.

It's a major step for Google, which has long faced a business quandary on mobile. Its primary advertising business is desktop-based and hasn't translated readily to smaller smartphone and tablet screens. Meanwhile, its search engine—also based on the open Web—has offered limited visibility into information locked away inside mobile apps.

See also: Google Has New Targeted Ads That Encourage You To Dive Into Apps

The search-result changes are Google's latest push to build out a mobile Web of "deep links" that take users to pages within apps, whether or not they're currently installed. They turns Google into an app discovery index, one that highlights content deep inside an app and might in turn inspire users to download it.

This could obviously benefits for anyone using Google search, as it can turn up app-based information you might otherwise have missed in a Web-only search. (It might also irritate some users by cluttering their results with app-install prompts.)

Developers, Index Your Apps

But it's much more a play for the hearts and minds of app developers. App-install links in Google search results could offer a huge incentive for developers to use Google's technology, which it calls App Indexing, to create those deep links to pages, photos, videos and other information inside their apps. 

See also: Google Search Extends Deep Into Apps With Android 4.4 KitKat

(Just in case you didn't get the picture, Google’s blog post on the subject is titled, "Drive app installs through App indexing.")

App Indexing has been part of Android for more than a year, and already helps point users to relevant apps. For example, if you're looking for a movie review and already have the Flixster app installed, the search result would present you a deep link to the app. But it wouldn’t work if you didn’t already have the app installed on your phone.

Now Google will highlight apps in search results whether or not the apps are installed, and then prompt you to install if not. The feature will include all apps whose developers have registered them in Google’s App Indexing program, which currently contains more than 30 billion deep links.

Lead photo by Roy Luck; animated GIF via Google

Date: Fri, 17 Apr 2015 10:26:04 -0700
Author: :: Category: Mobile

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Thanks To Google's Mobilegeddon, Your Search Rank May Be Toast

It's not as if you haven't been warned. Google has said for years it was going to get serious about mobile. Now, on April 21, it is.

As it announced back in February, on April 21 Google will "expand [its] use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal," which "will have a significant impact on search results."

See also: Why Google Wants To Padlock The Web

While most big companies have planned accordingly and can sleep through "Mobilegeddon," others, like Procter and Gamble and Microsoft, have not, and need to optimize their mobile sites or risk fading from Google's sight. 

Carrots And Sticks

For years Google largely ignored the mobile Web as it focused on Android and native apps. But recently the company has kicked its mobile Web love into overdrive, announcing a number of initiatives to dramatically improve performance of Web apps on Android. 

As summarized by Michael Bleigh:

It's hard to even enumerate all the different ways they're working on this. From speeding up paint to putting more workload into the GPU to providing flame charts (so cool!) in DevTools so you can figure out what causes that jank.

Those are the carrots Google is offering the world. But there are sticks, as well, and its Page Rank is the biggest stick it wields.

While Google has talked for years about the importance of the mobile Web, it really wasn't until February that it got everyone's attention. At that time, Google announced some upcoming changes to how it ranks mobile websites:

Starting April 21, we will be expanding our use of mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. This change will affect mobile searches in all languages worldwide and will have a significant impact in our search results. Consequently, users will find it easier to get relevant, high quality search results that are optimized for their devices.

While great for users, it's less great for those companies that continue to plod along the mobile path. While this change will affect small companies, it will also hit big companies like Microsoft (Windows Phone), Procter and Gamble, and more.

As if Windows Phone needed any more headwinds.

So what's an enterprise to do?

Avoiding Mobilegeddon

For some, the answer is "Build a responsive website!" This is a great place to start and is, in fact, Google's recommendation (and has been since 2012). 

But companies shouldn't stop there. Mobile success isn't ultimately a factor of making a desktop Web experience look nice on mobile devices. It's a matter of rethinking the Web experience for mobile and, really, the complete brand experience on mobile.

When Flipkart, India's Amazon, did this, it decided to dump its mobile website altogether and go all in on apps. For others, like MGM Resorts, the right approach has been to mostly embrace the mobile Web with a lighter app approach.

Mobile Internet usage now exceeds desktop Internet usage, and has since early 2014, according to comScore. Whether that trend has hit your particular company, however, is another matter. Some companies will have most of their site traffic coming from mobile devices, whereas others will see most from desktop browsers.

But dropping off the Google Page Rank radar is bad no matter how much of a company's business is currently coming from the mobile Web.  

For those concerned by the changes—and if you're not, you're not paying enough attention—Google offers an easy way to check your site's mobile readiness. (Relax, is Google-approved.)

Lead photo by Iwan Gabovitch

Date: Fri, 17 Apr 2015 06:00:00 -0700
Author: :: Category: Web

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Once A Virtual-Reality Joke, Google Cardboard Is Unfolding Into Something Real

Maybe big things really can come in small, ridiculous cardboard face-boxes. Google just made several announcements Thursday that aim to advance its popular Cardboard virtual reality viewer for manufacturers, app developers and end users. 

Cardboard, the curious corrugated VR "unit" Google launched at its I/O developer conference last year, seemed like a practical joke at first. (It's basically a box you fold up into a kind of headset with an Android phone in it to serve as the display.) A year later, though, we’re all still waiting for the punch line.

Meanwhile, Google has gotten serious, encouraging development for VR apps and interest by “hardware” partners to make their own versions of Cardboard. 

See also: Google Cardboard Gets Software Development Kit For VR Apps

It's now offering a new certification program, changes to its developer tools and new app categories for end users looking for compatible VR apps. Let’s take a closer look.

Just "Works With Google Cardboard"

Google really, really wants virtual reality to take off—especially the sort enabled by its Cardboard project. The company has been doing its best to raise an army of Cardboard users and partners, and the latest announcements play directly into that.

The hardware, if you can describe a cardboard box that way, now comes in a variety of configurations from an array of partners. Google wants to help them, so it now offers a new certification program that lets manufacturers—like DodoCase, Knox Labs and others—prove that they based their versions on Google’s original design and that the alternatives will work with any Cardboard app.

As part of the program, Google offers a "new tool that configures any viewer for every Cardboard app, automatically.” Manufacturers list their major parameters—including focal length, input type and inter-lens distance—and the system churns out a QR code they can post on their products. Customers scan the code with the Cardboard app, and all supporting VR apps get optimized for that viewer.

Compliance lets them slap a “Works with Google Cardboard” badge on their products, which sell for anywhere from $9 to $40, depending on the options. 

On the software side, app developers get new design guidelines for creating immersive experiences without disorienting users or confusing them with nonsensical menus and interfaces. Speaking of disorientation, Google also revised its Cardboard software development kits for Android and Unity, so head tracking and drift features work better. Update your apps with the new SDKs, and you too can earn a "Works with Google Cardboard” badge.

Not to leave end users out, Google also improved search and discovery for the “hundreds” of Cardboard apps and games available in Google Play. The company rejiggered the categories, which now list new ones such as Music and Video, Games and Experiences.

Just The Beginning

Google Cardboard

Cardboard may look like an elaborate prank, but the real joke in virtual reality is how long it's taken the technology to slog its way to the market.

Laughable—and let’s not forget nausea-inducing—early attempts stymied this niche for decades. Then Oculus’ 2012 Kickstarter for its Rift headset put VR in the spotlight again. Now owned by Facebook, the former indie startup has since worked on several developer versions, including its latest "Crescent Bay” unit, and its technology shows up in Samsung’s smartphone-powered Gear VR headset. Meanwhile, others—like Sony and HTC—have hopped on the bandwagon. But they’re taking their time. A few have promised consumer-ready releases this year, including Oculus (finally).

Amid the frenzy, Google swooped in last year to give the public the cheapest, fold-it-yourself VR viewers imaginable—even offering instructions on how people can make their own. It also promoted other companies that make their own knock-offs, urged app makers to develop supporting VR apps, and jazzed up its own Google Maps application with Cardboard-friendly VR Street View.

See also: Street View Comes To Google Cardboard

"We think that Google Cardboard offers everyone a simple, fun, and affordable VR experience,” said Andrew Nartker, product manager for Google Cardboard. "It's exciting to show everyone that their current smartphone can already run great VR apps.”

That sentiment steps on Samsung’s territory more than most. While underpowered compared to full, computer or gaming console VR set-ups, Gear VR eradicates cables by seating a smartphone inside the unit. But Gear VR is limited to Samsung devices only. The low-tech Cardboard won’t work with every single smartphone on the market either, but at least it works with more—including some Nexus, Samsung, Motorola phones and others.

Plus, Samsung’s headset costs $200, while you can pick up Cardboard for less than the price of lunch.

Soon, that meager investment could look even better. Google also scooped up some new talent—namely the audio maestros from Thrive Audio team, from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Engineering, and experts in 3D painting from Tilt Brush, which won a Proto Award for “Best Graphical User Interface” last year.

The move suggests that, when it comes to the humble Cardboard, Google hopes to have more to brag about before long. 

Lead photo by Adriana Lee; others courtesy of Google

Date: Thu, 16 Apr 2015 13:18:12 -0700
Author: :: Category: Play

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