Looks like Google is changing Android’s gun emoji into a water gun

Back in 2016, Apple swapped out the graphic used for its gun emoji, replacing the realistically drawn handgun with a bright green water gun.

Just a few days ago, Twitter followed suit.

And now, it seems, so will Google . The gun emoji on Android will likely soon appear as a bright orange and yellow super soaker lookalike.

As first noted by Emojipedia, Google has just swapped the graphics in its open Noto Emoji library on GitHub. These are the Emoji that Android uses by default, so the same change will presumably start to roll out there before too long.

At this point, Google making this change seemed inevitable. It seemed likely to happen as soon Apple made the jump; once others started following suit (Twitter earlier this week, and Samsung with the release of the Galaxy S9) it became a certainty.

It’s a matter of clarity in communication. If a massive chunk of people (iOS users) can send a cartoony water toy in a message that another massive chunk of people (Android users) receive as a realistically drawn handgun, there’s room for all sorts of trouble and confusion. Apple wasn’t going to reverse course on this one — and now that others have made the change, Google would’ve been the odd one out.

Google confirms some of its own services are now getting blocked in Russia over the Telegram ban

A shower of paper airplanes darted through the skies of Moscow and other towns in Russia today, as users answered the call of entrepreneur Pavel Durov to send the blank missives out of their windows at a pre-appointed time in support of Telegram, a messaging app he founded that was blocked last week by Russian regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) that uses a paper airplane icon. RKN believes the service is violating national laws by failing to provide it with encryption keys to access messages on the service (Telegram has refused to comply).

The paper plane send-off was a small, flashmob turn in a “Digital Resistance” — Durov’s preferred term — that has otherwise largely been played out online: currently, nearly 18 million IP addresses are knocked out from being accessed in Russia, all in the name of blocking Telegram.

And in the latest development, Google has now confirmed to us that its own services are now also being impacted. From what we understand, Google Search, Gmail and push notifications for Android apps are among the products being affected.

“We are aware of reports that some users in Russia are unable to access some Google products, and are investigating those reports,” said a Google spokesperson in an emailed response. We’d been trying to contact Google all week about the Telegram blockade, and this is the first time that the company has both replied and acknowledged something related to it.

(Amazon has acknowledged our messages but has yet to reply to them.)

Google’s comments come on the heels of RKN itself also announcing today that it had expanded its IP blocks to Google’s services. At its peak, RKN had blocked nearly 19 million IP addresses, with dozens of third-party services that also use Google Cloud and Amazon’s AWS, such as Twitch and Spotify, also getting caught in the crossfire.

Russia is among the countries in the world that has enforced a kind of digital firewall, blocking periodically or permanently certain online content. Some turn to VPNs to access that content anyway, but it turns out that Telegram hasn’t needed to rely on that workaround to get used.

“RKN is embarrassingly bad at blocking Telegram, so most people keep using it without any intermediaries,” said Ilya Andreev, COO and co-founder of Vee Security, which has been providing a proxy service to bypass the ban. Currently, it is supporting up to 2 million users simultaneously, although this is a relatively small proportion considering Telegram has around 14 million users in the country (and, likely, more considering all the free publicity it’s been getting).

As we described earlier this week, the reason so many IP addresses are getting blocked is because Telegram has been using a technique that allows it to “hop” to a new IP address when the one that it’s using is blocked from getting accessed by RKN. It’s a technique that a much smaller app, Zello, had also resorted to using for nearly a year when the RKN announced its own ban.

Zello ceased its activities earlier this year when RKN got wise to Zello’s ways and chose to start blocking entire subnetworks of IP addresses to avoid so many hops, and Amazon’s AWS and Google Cloud kindly asked Zello to stop as other services also started to get blocked. So, when Telegram started the same kind of hopping, RKN, in effect, knew just what to do to turn the screws. (And it also took the heat off Zello, which miraculously got restored.)

So far, Telegram’s cloud partners have held strong and have not taken the same route, although getting its own services blocked could see Google’s resolve tested at a new level.

Some believe that one outcome could be the regulator playing out an elaborate game of chicken with Telegram and the rest of the internet companies that are in some way aiding and abetting it, spurred in part by Russia’s larger profile and how such blocks would appear to international audiences.

“Russia can’t keep blocking random things on the Internet,” Andreev said. “Russia is working hard to make its image more alluring to foreigners in preparation for the World Cup,” which is taking place this June and July. “They can’t have tourists coming and realising Google doesn’t work in Russia.”

We’ll update this post and continue to write on further developments as we learn more.

Google changes its messaging strategy again: Goodbye to Allo, double down on RCS

Google’s long-and-winding road to figuring out messaging is taking yet another change of direction after the company called time on Allo, its newest chat app launch, in order to double down on its vision to enable an enhanced version of SMS.

The company told The Verge that it is “pausing” work on Allo, which was only launched as recently as September 2016, in order to put its resources into the adoption RCS (Rich Communication Services), a messaging standard that has the potential to tie together SMS and other chat apps. RCS isn’t new, and Google has been pushing it for some time, but now the company is rebranding it as “Chat” and putting all its efforts into getting operators on board.

The new strategy will see almost the entire Allo team switch to Android Messages, according to The Verge.

In case you didn’t hear about it before, RCS is essentially a technology that allows basic ‘SMS’ messaging to be standardized across devices. In the same way that iMessage lets Apple device owners chat for free using data instead of paid-for SMS, RCS could allow free chats across different networks on Android or other devices. RCS can be integrated into chat apps, which is something Google has already done with Android Messages, but the tipping point is working with others, and that means operators.

Unlike Apple, RCS is designed to work with carriers who can develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, which could include chat apps. Essentially, it gives them a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. They don’t make money from consumers, but they do get to keep their brand and they can look to get revenue from business services.

But this approach requires operators themselves to implement the technology. That’s no easy thing since carriers don’t exactly trust tech companies — WhatsApp alone has massively eaten into its SMS and call revenues — and they don’t like working with each other, too.

Google said more than 55 operators worldwide have been recruited to support Chat, but it isn’t clear exactly when they might roll it out. Microsoft is among the OEM supporters, which raises the possibility it could bring support to Windows 10, but the company was non-committal when The Verge pressed it on that possibility.

Google has tried many things on messaging, but it has largely failed because it doesn’t have a ramp to users. WhatsApp benefitted from being a first mover — all the other early leaders in Western markets are nowhere to be seen today — and Facebook Messenger is built on top of the world’s most popular social network.

Both of those services have over one billion active users, Allo never got to 50 million. Google search doesn’t have that contact, and the company’s previous efforts didn’t capture market share. (Hangouts was promising but it has pivoted into a tool for enterprises.)

That left Google with two options, take on carriers directly with an iMessage-style service that’s built into Android, or work with them.

It chose the second option. It is far messier with so many different parties involved, but it is also apparently a principled approach.

“We can’t do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We don’t believe in taking the approach that Apple does. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to deliver a great experience,” Anil Sabharwal, the Google executive leading Chat, told The Verge.

Sabharwal refused to be drawn on a timeframe for operators rolling out Chat apps.

“By the end of this year, we’ll be in a really great state, and by mid-next year, we’ll be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience,” he said, explaining that uptake could be quicker in Europe or Latin America than the U.S.. “This is not a three-to-five-year play. Our goal is to get this level of quality messaging to our users on Android within the next couple of years.”

We shall see. But at least there won’t be yet more Google messaging apps launching, so there’s that.

Can data science save social media?

The unfettered internet is too often used for malicious purposes and is frequently woefully inaccurate. Social media — especially Facebook — has failed miserably at protecting user privacy and blocking miscreants from sowing discord.

That’s why CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just forced to testify about user privacy before both houses of Congress. And now governmental regulation of FaceBook and other social media appears to be a fait accompli.

At this key juncture, the crucial question is whether regulation — in concert with FaceBook’s promises to aggressively mitigate its weaknesses — correct the privacy abuses and continue to fulfill FaceBook’s goal of giving people the power to build transparent communities, bringing the world closer together?

The answer is maybe.

What has not been said is that FaceBook must embrace data science methodologies initially created in the bowels of the federal government to help protect its two billion users. Simultaneously, FaceBook must still enable advertisers — its sole source of revenue — to get the user data required to justify their expenditures.

Specifically, Facebook must promulgate and embrace what is known in high-level security circles as homomorphic encryption (HE), often considered the “Holy Grail” of cryptography, and data provenance (DP). HE would enable Facebook, for example, to generate aggregated reports about its user psychographic profiles so that advertisers could still accurately target groups of prospective customers without knowing their actual identities.

Meanwhile, data provenance – the process of tracing and recording true identities and the origins of data and its movement between data bases – could unearth the true identities of Russian perpetrators and other malefactors or at least identify unknown provenance, adding much needed transparency in cyberspace.

Both methodologies are extraordinarily complex. IBM and Microsoft, in addition to the National Security Agency, have been working on HE for years but the technology has suffered from significant performance challenges. Progress is being made, however. IBM, for example, has been granted a patent on a particular HE method – a strong hint it’s seeking a practical solution – and last month proudly announced that its rewritten HE encryption library now works up to 75 times faster. Maryland-based ENVEIL, a startup staffed by the former NSA HE team, has broken the performance barriers required to produce a commercially viable version of HE, benchmarking millions of times faster than IBM in tested use cases.

How Homomorphic Encryption Would Help FaceBook

HE is a technique used to operate on and draw useful conclusions from encrypted data without decrypting it, simultaneously protecting the source of the information. It is useful to FaceBook because its massive inventory of personally identifiable information is the foundation of the economics underlying its business model. The more comprehensive the datasets about individuals, the more precisely advertising can be targeted.

HE could keep Facebook information safe from hackers and inappropriate disclosure, but still extract the essence of what the data tells advertisers. It would convert encrypted data into strings of numbers, do math with these strings, and then decrypt the results to get the same answer it would if the data wasn’t encrypted at all.

A particularly promising sign for HE emerged last year, when Google revealed a new marketing measurement tool that relies on this technology to allow advertisers to see whether their online ads result in in-store purchases.

Unearthing this information requires analyzing datasets belonging to separate organizations, notwithstanding the fact that these organizations pledge to protect the privacy and personal information of the data subjects. HE skirts this by generating aggregated, non-specific reports about the comparisons between these datasets.

In pilot tests, HE enabled Google to successfully analyze encrypted data about who clicked on an advertisement in combination with another encrypted multi-company dataset that recorded credit card purchase records. With this data in hand, Google was able to provide reports to advertisers summarizing the relationship between the two databases to conclude, for example, that five percent of the people who clicked  on an ad wound up purchasing in a store.

Data Provenance

Data provenance has a markedly different core principle. It’s based on the fact that digital information is atomized into 1’s and 0’s with no intrinsic truth. The dual digits exist only to disseminate information, whether accurate or widely fabricated. A well-crafted lie can easily be indistinguishable from the truth and distributed across the internet. What counts is the source of these 1’s and 0’s. In short, is it legitimate?  What is the history of the 1’ and 0’s?

The art market, as an example, deploys DP to combat fakes and forgeries of the world’s greatest paintings, drawing and sculptures. It uses DP techniques to create a verifiable, chain-of-custody for each piece of the artwork, preserving the integrity of the market.

Much the same thing can be done in the online world. For example, a FaceBook post referencing a formal statement by a politician, with an accompanying photo, would  have provenance records directly linking the post to the politician’s press release and even the specifics of the photographer’s camera. The goal – again – is ensuring that data content is legitimate.

Companies such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, British-based Tesco and Swedish-based H&M, an international clothing retailer, are using or experimenting with new technologies to provide provenance data to the marketplace.

Let’s hope that Facebook and its social media brethren begin studying HE and DP thoroughly and implement it as soon as feasible. Other strong measures — such as the upcoming implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which will use a big stick to secure personally identifiable information – essentially should be cloned in the U.S. What is best, however, are multiple avenues to enhance user privacy and security, while hopefully preventing breaches in the first place. Nothing less than the long-term viability of social media giants is at stake.

Google initiative looks to preserve walkable copies of Earth’s historical sites on the web

Indiana Jones’ exclamation of, “It belongs in a museum!” is taking a trip into the digital age with a Google initiative that will save archaeological sites to the cloud.

Google’s non-profit Arts and Culture arm is partnering with another non-profit, Oakland-based CyArk, which flies drones and sets up cameras around historical sites using photogrammetry and LiDAR scanning tech to create dense models composed of thousands of photos and data points. These scans had previously not been available publicly but with the help of Google, CyArk now has opened access to a number of their scans and will be adding more.

CyArk’s mission has largely been focused on preservation of these sites. In a talk I attended earlier today, the non-profit detailed that as these historic structures they scan are threatened by natural disasters or human conflict, the data they have offers the potential for these sites to be restored with laser accuracy or at least preserved as they were for future generations to enjoy in a digital sense.

Google’s Art and Culture team has already done a lot of intensely cool work when it comes to preserving artwork across the globe in high-resolution glory. With the advent of so many methods for capturing large-scale 3D models over the past few years, it makes sense that Google would eye preservation of physical structures next. The fact that this 3D digitization arrives in the early stages of consumer VR also gives it a quality platform to be viewed on which will only get better. As opposed to 360 photos, viewers will actually be able to walk around these sites, look into crevices and peek behind objects captured spatially.

It’s actually pretty exciting and the ability to preserve culture as scaled physical locations that you could physically walk through in the future is a deeply intimate view of history that modern technology has converged on. That Google is working with non-profits is largely positive to carry this out is admirable and one can hope that they direct more resources to aid these efforts on a global scale so that more people can experience immersive history.

Today, you can check out 25 of these historic sites in 18 countries. You can view the models and environments in desktop mode as well as on PC and mobile VR headsets.

How Facebook gives an asymmetric advantage to negative messaging

Few Facebook critics are as credible as Roger McNamee, the managing partner at Elevation Partners. As an early investor in Facebook, McNamee was only only a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg but also introduce him to Sheryl Sandberg.

So it’s hard to underestimate the significance of McNamee’s increasingly public criticism of Facebook over the last couple of years, particularly in the light of the growing Cambridge Analytica storm.

According to McNamee, Facebook pioneered the building of a tech company on “human emotions”. Given that the social network knows all of our “emotional hot buttons”, McNamee believes, there is “something systemic” about the way that third parties can “destabilize” our democracies and economies. McNamee saw this in 2016 with both the Brexit referendum in the UK and the American Presidential election and concluded that Facebook does, indeed, give “asymmetric advantage” to negative messages.

McNamee still believes that Facebook can be fixed. But Zuckerberg and Sandberg, he insists, both have to be “honest” about what’s happened and recognize its “civic responsibility” in strengthening democracy. And tech can do its part too, McNamee believes, in acknowledging and confronting what he calls its “dark side”.

McNamee is certainly doing this. He has now teamed up with ex Google ethicist Tristan Harris in the creation of The Center for Human Technology — an alliance of Silicon Valley notables dedicated to “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

How to save your privacy from the Internet’s clutches

Another week, another massive privacy scandal. When it’s not Facebook admitting it allowed data on as many as 87 million users to be sucked out by a developer on its platform who sold it to a political consultancy working for the Trump campaign, or dating app Grindr ‘fessing up to sharing its users’ HIV status with third party A/B testers, some other ugly facet of the tech industry’s love affair with tracking everything its users do slides into view.

Suddenly, Android users discover to their horror that Google’s mobile platform tells the company where they are all the time — thanks to baked-in location tracking bundled with Google services like Maps and Photos. Or Amazon Echo users realize Jeff Bezos’ ecommerce empire has amassed audio recordings of every single interaction they’ve had with their cute little smart speaker.

The problem, as ever with the tech industry’s teeny-weeny greyscaled legalise, is that the people it refers to as “users” aren’t genuinely consenting to having their information sucked into the cloud for goodness knows what. Because they haven’t been given a clear picture of what agreeing to share their data will really mean.

Instead one or two select features, with a mote of user benefit, tend to be presented at the point of sign up — to socially engineer ‘consent’. Then the company can walk away with a defacto license to perpetually harvest that person’s data by claiming that a consent box was once ticked.

A great example of that is Facebook’s Nearby Friends. The feature lets you share your position with your friends so — and here’s that shiny promise — you can more easily hang out with them. But do you know anyone who is actively using this feature? Yet millions of people started sharing their exact location with Facebook for a feature that’s now buried and mostly unused. Meanwhile Facebook is actively using your location to track your offline habits so it can make money targeting you with adverts.

Terms & Conditions are the biggest lie in the tech industry, as we’ve written before. (And more recently: It was not consent, it was concealment.)

Senator Kennedy of Louisiana also made the point succinctly to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week, telling him to his face: “Your user agreement sucks.” We couldn’t agree more.

Happily disingenuous T&Cs are on borrowed time — at least for European tech users, thanks to a new European Union data protection framework that will come into force next month. The GDPR tightens consent requirements — mandating clear and accurate information be provided to users at the point of sign up. Data collection is also more tightly tied to specific function.

From next month, holding onto personal data without a very good reason to do so will be far more risky — because GDPR is also backed up with a regime of supersized fines that are intended to make privacy rules much harder to ignore.

Of course U.S. tech users can’t bank on benefiting from European privacy regulations. And while there are now growing calls in the country for legislation to protect people’s data — in a bid to steer off the next democracy-denting Cambridge Analytica scandal, at very least — any such process will take a lot of political will.

It certainly will not happen overnight. And you can expect tech giants to fight tooth and nail against laws being drafted and passed — as indeed Facebook, Google and others lobbied fiercely to try to get GDPR watered down.

Facebook has already revealed it will not be universally applying the European regulation — which means people in North America are likely to get a degree of lower privacy than Facebook users everywhere else in the world. Which doesn’t exactly sound fair.

When it comes to privacy, some of you may think you have nothing to hide. But that’s a straw man. It’s especially hard to defend this line of thinking now that big tech companies have attracted so much soft power they can influence elections, inflame conflicts and divide people in general. It’s time to think about the bigger impact of technology on the fabric of society, and not just your personal case.

Shifting the balance

So what can Internet users do right now to stop tech giants, advertisers and unknown entities tracking everything you do online — and trying to join the dots of your digital activity to paint a picture of who they think you are? At least, everything short of moving to Europe, where privacy is a fundamental right.

There are some practical steps you can take to limit day-to-day online privacy risks by reducing third party access to your information and shielding more of your digital activity from prying eyes.

Not all these measures are appropriate for every person. It’s up to you to determine how much effort you want (or need) to put in to shield your privacy.

You may be happy to share a certain amount of personal data in exchange for access to a certain service, for example. But even then it’s unlikely that the full trade-off has been made clear to you. So it’s worth asking yourself if you’re really getting a good deal.

Once people’s eyes are opened to the fine-grained detail and depth of personal information being harvested, even some very seasoned tech users have reacted with shock — saying they had no idea, for example, that Facebook Messenger was continuously uploading their phone book and logging their calls and SMS metadata.

This is one of the reasons why the U.K.’s information commissioner has been calling for increased transparency about how and why data flows. Because for far too long tech savvy entities have been able to apply privacy hostile actions in the dark. And it hasn’t really been possible for the average person to know what’s being done with their information. Or even what data they are giving up when they click ‘I agree’.

Why does an A/B testing firm need to know a person’s HIV status? Why does a social network app need continuous access to your call history? Why should an ad giant be able to continuously pin your movements on a map?

Are you really getting so much value from an app that you’re happy for the company behind it and anyone else they partner with to know everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, the stuff you like and look at — even to have a pretty good idea what you’re thinking?

Every data misuse scandal shines a bit more light on some very murky practices — which will hopefully generate momentum for rule changes to disinfect data handling processes and strengthen individuals’ privacy by spotlighting trade-offs that have zero justification.

With some effort — and good online security practices (which we’re taking as a given for the purposes of this article, but one quick tip: Enable 2FA everywhere you can) — you can also make it harder for the web’s lurking watchers to dine out on your data.

Just don’t expect the lengths you have to go to protect your privacy to feel fair or just — the horrible truth is this fight sucks.

But whatever you do, don’t give up.

How to hide on the internet

Action: Tape over all your webcams
Who is this for: Everyone — even Mark Zuckerberg!
How difficult is it: Easy peasy lemon squeezy
Tell me more: You can get fancy removable stickers for this purpose (noyb has some nice ones). Or you can go DIY and use a bit of masking tape — on your laptop, your smartphone, even your smart TV… If your job requires you to be on camera, such as for some conference calls, and you want to look a bit more pro you can buy a webcam cover. Sadly locking down privacy is rarely this easy.

Action: Install HTTPS Everywhere
Who is this for: Everyone — seriously do it
How difficult is it: Mild effort
Tell me more: Many websites offer encryption. With HTTPS, people running the network between your device and the server hosting the website you’re browsing can’t see your requests and your internet traffic. But some websites still load unencrypted pages by default (HTTP), which also causes a security risk. The EFF has developed a browser extension that makes sure that you access all websites that offer HTTPS using… HTTPS.

Action: Use tracker blockers
Who is this for: Everyone — except people who like being ad-stalked online
How difficult is it: Mild effort
Tell me more: Trackers refers to a whole category of privacy-hostile technologies designed to follow and record what web users are doing as they move from site to site, and even across different devices. Trackers come in a range of forms these days. And there are some pretty sophisticated ways of being tracked (some definitely harder to thwart than others). But to combat trackers being deployed on popular websites — which are probably also making the pages slower to load than they otherwise would be — there’s now a range of decent, user-friendly tracker blockers to choose from. Pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo recently added a tracker blocker to their browser extensions, for example. Disconnect.me is also a popular extension to block trackers from third-party websites. Firefox also has a built-in tracker blocker, which is now enabled by default in the mobile apps. If you’re curious and want to see the list of trackers on popular website, you can also install Kimetrak to understand that it’s a widespread issue.

Action: Use an ad blocker
Who is this for: Everyone who can support the moral burden
How difficult is it: Fairly easy these days but you might be locked out of the content on some news websites as a result
Tell me more: If you’ve tried using a tracker blocker, you may have noticed that many ads have been blocked in the process. That’s because most ads load from third-party servers that track you across multiple sites. So if you want to go one step further and block all ads, you should install an ad blocker. Some browsers like Opera come with an ad blocker. Otherwise, we recommend uBlock Origin on macOS, Windows, Linux and Android. 1Blocker is a solid option on iOS.
But let’s be honest, TechCrunch makes some money with online ads. If 100% of web users install an ad blocker many websites you know and love would simply go bankrupt. While your individual choice won’t have a material impact on the bottom line, consider whitelisting the sites you like. And if you’re angry at how many trackers your favorite news site is running try emailing them to ask (politely) if they can at least reduce the number of trackers they use.

Action: Make a private search engine your default
Who is this for: Most people
How difficult is it: A bit of effort because your search results might become slightly less relevant
Tell me more: Google probably knows more about you than even Facebook does, thanks to the things you tell it when you type queries into its search engine. Though that’s just the tip of how it tracks you — if you use Android it will keep running tabs on everywhere you go unless you opt out of location services. It also has its tracking infrastructure embedded on three-quarters of the top million websites. So chances are it’s following what you’re browsing online — unless you also take steps to lock down your browsing (see below).
But one major way to limit what Google knows about you is to switch to using an alternative search engine when you need to look something up on the Internet. This isn’t as hard as it used to be as there are some pretty decent alternatives now — such as DuckDuckGo which Apple will let you set as the default browser on iOS — or Qwant for French-speaking users. German users can check out Cliqz. You will also need to remember to be careful about any voice assistants you use as they often default to using Google to look stuff up on the web.

Action: Use private browser sessions
Who is this for: Most people
How difficult is it: Not at all if you understand what a private session is
Tell me more: All browsers on desktop and mobile now let you open a private window. While this can be a powerful tool, it is often misunderstood. By default, private sessions don’t make you more invisible — you’ll get tracked from one tab to another. But private sessions let you start with a clean slate. Every time you close your private session, all your cookies are erased. It’s like you disappear from everyone’s radar. You can then reopen another private session and pretend that nobody knows who you are. That’s why using a private session for weeks or months doesn’t do much, but short private sessions can be helpful.

Action: Use multiple browsers and/or browser containers
Who is this for: People who don’t want to stop using social media entirely
How difficult is it: Some effort to not get in a muddle
Tell me more: Using different browsers for different online activities can be a good way of separating portions of your browsing activity. You could, for example, use one browser on your desktop computer for your online banking, say, and a different browser for your social networking or ecommerce activity. Taking this approach further, you could use different mobile devices when you want to access different apps. The point of dividing your browsing across different browsers/devices is to try to make it harder to link all your online activity to you. That said, lots of adtech effort has been put into developing cross-device tracking techniques — so it’s not clear that fragmenting your browsing sessions will successful beat all the trackers. 
In a similar vein, in 2016 Mozilla added a feature to its Firefox browser that’s intended to help web users segregate online identities within the same browser — called multi container extensions. This approach gives users some control but it does not stop their browser being fingerprinted and all their web activity in it linked and tracked. It may help reduce some cookie-based tracking, though.
Last month Mozilla also updated the container feature to add one that specifically isolates a Facebook user’s identity from the rest of the web. This limits how Facebook can track a user’s non-Facebook web browsing — which yes Facebook does do, whatever Zuckerberg tried to claim in Congress — so again it’s a way to reduce what the social network giant knows about you. (Though it should also be noted that clicking on any Facebook social plug-ins you encounter on other websites will still send Facebook your personal data.)

Action: Get acquainted with Tor
Who is this for: Activists, people with high risks attached to being tracked online, committed privacy advocates who want to help grow the Tor network
How difficult is it: Patience is needed to use Tor. Also some effort to ensure you don’t accidentally do something that compromises your anonymity
Tell me more: For the most robust form of anonymous web browsing there’s Tor. Tor’s onion network works by encrypting and routing your Internet traffic randomly through a series of relay servers to make it harder to link a specific device with a specific online destination. This does mean it’s definitely not the fastest form of web browsing around. Some sites can also try to block Tor users so the Internet experience you get when browsing in this way may suffer. But it’s the best chance of truly preserving your online anonymity. You’ll need to download the relevant Tor browser bundle to use it. It’s pretty straightforward to install and get going. But expect very frequent security updates which will also slow you down.

Action: Switch to another DNS
Who is this for: People who don’t trust their ISP
How difficult is it: Moderately
Tell me more: When you type an address in the address bar (such as techcrunch.com), your device asks a Domain Name Server to translate that address into an IP address (a unique combination of numbers and dots). By default, your ISP or your mobile carrier runs a DNS for their users. It means that they can see all your web history. Big telecom companies are going to take advantage of that to ramp up their advertising efforts. By default, your DNS query is also unencrypted and can be intercepted by people running the network. Some governments also ask telecom companies to block some websites on their DNS servers — some countries block Facebook for censorship reasons, others block The Pirate Bay for online piracy reasons.
You can configure each of your device to use another public DNS. But don’t use Google’s public DNS! It’s an ad company, so they really want to see your web history. Both Quad9 and Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1 have strong privacy policies. But Quad9 is a not-for-profit organization, so it’s easier to trust them.

Action: Disable location services
Who is this for: Anyone who feels uncomfortable with the idea of being kept under surveillance
How difficult is it: A bit of effort finding and changing settings, and a bit of commitment to stay on top of any ‘updates’ to privacy policies which might try to revive location tracking. You also need to be prepared to accept some reduction in the utility and/or convenience of the service because it won’t be able to automatically customize what it shows you based on your location
Tell me more: The tech industry is especially keen to keep tabs on where its users are at any given moment. And thanks to the smash hit success of smartphones with embedded sensors it’s never been easier to pervasively track where people are going — and therefore to infer what they’re doing. For ad targeting purposes location data is highly valuable of course. But it’s also hugely intrusive. Did you just visit a certain type of health clinic? Were you carrying your phone loaded with location-sucking apps? Why then it’s trivially easy for the likes of Google and Facebook to connect your identity to that trip — and link all that intel to their ad networks. And if the social network’s platform isn’t adequately “locked down” — as Zuckerberg would put it — your private information might leak and end up elsewhere. It could even get passed around between all sorts of unknown entities — as the up to 87M Facebook profiles in the Cambridge Analytica scandal appear to have been. (Whistleblower Chris Wylie has said that Facebook data-set went “everywhere”.)
There are other potential risks too. Insurance premiums being assessed based on covertly collected data inputs. Companies that work for government agencies using social media info to try to remove benefits or even have people deported. Location data can also influence the types of adverts you see or don’t see. And on that front there’s a risk of discrimination if certain types of ads — jobs or housing, for example — don’t get served to you because you happen to be a person of color, say, or a Muslim. Excluding certain protected groups of people from adverts can be illegal — but that hasn’t stopped it happening multiple times on Facebook’s platform. And location can be a key signal that underpins this kind of prejudicial discrimination.
Even the prices you are offered online can depend on what is being inferred about you via your movements. The bottom line is that everyone’s personal data is being made to carry a lot of baggage these days — and most of the time it’s almost impossible to figure out exactly what that unasked for baggage might entail when you consent to letting a particular app or service track where you go.
Pervasive tracking of location at very least risks putting you at a disadvantage as a consumer. Certainly if you live somewhere without a proper regulatory framework for privacy. It’s also worth bearing in mind how lax tech giants can be where location privacy is concerned — whether it’s Uber’s infamous ‘god view’ tool or Snapchat leaking schoolkids’ location or Strava accidentally revealing the locations of military bases. Their record is pretty terrible.
If you really can’t be bothered to go and hunt down and switch off every location setting one fairly crude action you can take is to buy a faraday cage carry case — Silent Pocket makes an extensive line of carry cases with embedded wireless shielding tech, for instance — which you can pop your smartphone into when you’re on the move to isolate it from the network. Of course once you take it out it will instantly reconnect and location data will be passed again so this is not going to do very much on its own. Nixing location tracking in the settings is much more effective.

Action: Approach VPNs with extreme caution
Who is this for: All web users — unless free Internet access is not available in your country
How difficult is it: No additional effort
Tell me more: While there may be times when you feel tempted to sign up and use a VPN service — say, to try to circumvent geoblocks so you can stream video content that’s not otherwise available in your country — if you do this you should assume that the service provider will at very least be recording everything you’re doing online. They may choose to sell that info or even steal your identity. Many of them promise you perfect privacy and great terms of service. But you can never know for sure if they’re actually doing what they say. So the rule of thumb about all VPNs is: Assume zero privacy — and avoid if at all possible. Facebook even has its own VPN — which it’s been aggressively pushing to users of its main app by badging it as a security service, with the friendly-sounding name ‘Protect’. In reality the company wants you to use this so it can track what other apps you’re using — for its own business intelligence purposes. So a more accurate name for this ‘service’ would be: ‘Protect Facebook’s stranglehold on the social web’.

Action: Build your own VPN server
Who is this for: Developers
How difficult is it: You need to be comfortable with the Terminal
Tell me more: The only VPN server you can trust is the one you built yourself! In that case, VPN servers can be a great tool if you’re on a network you don’t trust (a hotel, a conference or an office). We recommend using Algo VPN and a hosting provider you trust.

Action: Take care with third-party keyboard apps
Who is this for: All touchscreen device users
How difficult is it: No additional effort
Tell me more: Keyboard apps are a potential privacy minefield given that, if you allow cloud-enabled features, they can be in a position to suck out all the information you’re typing into your device — from passwords to credit card numbers to the private contents of your messages. That’s not to say that all third-party keyboards are keylogging everything you type. But the risk is there — so you need to be very careful about what you choose to use. Security is also key. Last year, sensitive personal data from 31M+ users of one third-party keyboard, AI.type, leaked online after the company had failed to properly secure its database server, as one illustrative example of the potential risks.
Google knows how powerful keyboards can be as a data-sucker — which is why it got into the third-party keyboard game, outing its own Gboard keyboard app first for Apple’s iOS in 2016 and later bringing it to Android. If you use Gboard you should know you are handing the adtech giant another firehose of your private information — though it claims that only search queries and “usage statistics” are sent by Gboard to Google (The privacy policy further specifies: “Anything you type other than your searches, like passwords or chats with friends, isn’t sent. Saved words on your device aren’t sent.”). So if you believe that Gboard is not literally a keylogger. But it is watching what you search for and how you use your phone. 
Also worth remembering: Data will still be passed by Gboard to Google if you’re using an e2e encrypted messenger like Signal. So third party keyboards can erode the protection afforded by robust e2e encryption — so again: Be very careful what you use.

Action: Use end-to-end encrypted messengers
Who is this for: Everyone who can
How difficult is it: Mild effort unless all your friends are using other messaging apps
Tell me more: Choosing friends based on their choice of messaging app isn’t a great option so real world network effects can often work against privacy. Indeed, Facebook uses the fuzzy feelings you have about your friends to manipulate Messenger users to consent to continuously uploading their phone contacts, by suggesting you have to if you want to talk to your contacts. (Which is, by the by, entirely bogus.)
But if all your friends use a messaging app that does not have end-to-end encryption chances are you’ll feel forced to use that same non-privacy-safe app too. Given that the other option is to exclude yourself from the digital chatter of your friend group. Which would clearly suck. 
Facebook-owned WhatsApp does at least have end-to-end encryption — and is widely used (certainly internationally). Though you still need to be careful to opt out of any privacy-eroding terms the company tries to push. In summer 2016, for example, a major T&Cs change sought to link WhatsApp users’ accounts with their Facebook profiles (and thus with all the data Facebook holds on them) — as well as sharing sensitive stuff like your last seen status, your address book, your BFFs in Whatsapp and all sorts of metadata with Zuck’s ‘family’ of companies. Thankfully most of this privacy-hostile data sharing has been suspended in Europe, after Facebook got in trouble with local data protection agencies. 

Action: Use end-to-end encryption if you use cloud storage
Who is this for: Dedicated privacy practitioners, anyone worried about third parties accessing their stuff
How difficult is it: Some effort, especially if you have lots of content stored in another service that you need to migrate
Tell me more: Dropbox IPO’d last month — and the markets signalled their approval of its business. But someone who doesn’t approve of the cloud storage giant is Edward Snowden — who in 2014 advised: “Get rid of Dropbox”, arguing the company is hostile to privacy. The problem is that Dropbox does not offer zero access encryption — because it retains encryption keys, meaning it can technically decrypt and read the data you store with it if it decides it needs to or is served with a warrant.
Cloud storage alternatives that do offer local encryption with no access to the encryption keys are available, such as Spideroak. And if you’re looking for a cloud backup service, Backblaze also offers the option to let you manage the encryption key. Another workaround if you do still want to use a service like Dropbox is to locally encrypt the stuff you want to store before you upload it — using another third party service such as Boxcryptor.

Action: Use an end-to-end encrypted email service
Who is this for: Anyone who wants to be sure their email isn’t being data mined
How difficult is it: Some effort — largely around migrating data and/or contacts from another email service
Tell me more: In the middle of last year Google finally announced it would no longer be data-mining the emails inside its Gmail free email service. (For a little perspective on how long it took to give up data-mining your emails, Gmail launched all the way back in 2004.) The company probably feels it has more than enough alternative data points feeding its user profiling at this point. Plus data-mining email with the rise of end-to-end encrypted messaging apps risks pushing the company over the ‘creepy line’ it’s been so keen to avoid to try to stave off the kind of privacy backlash currently engulfing Facebook.
So does it mean that Gmail is now 100% privacy safe? No, because the service is not end-to-end encrypted. But there are now some great webmail clients that do offer robust end-to-end encryption — most notably the Swiss service Protonmail. Really it’s never been easier to access a reliable, user-friendly, pro-privacy email service. If you want to go one step further, you should set up PGP encryption keys and share them with your contacts. This is a lot more difficult though.

Action: Choose iOS over Android
Who is this for: Mainstream consumers, Apple fans
How difficult is it: Depends on the person. Apple hardware is generally more expensive so there’s a cost premium
Tell me more: No connected technology is 100% privacy safe but Apple’s hardware-focused business model means the company’s devices are not engineered to try to harvest user data by default. Apple does also invest in developing pro-privacy technologies. Whereas there’s no getting around the fact Android-maker Google is an adtech giant whose revenues depend on profiling users in order to target web users with adverts. Basically the company needs to suck your data to make a fat profit. That’s why Google asks you to share all your web and app activity and location history if you want to use Google Assistant, for instance.
Android is a more open platform than iOS, though, and it’s possible to configure it in many different ways — some of which can be more locked down as regards privacy than others (the Android Open Source Project can be customized and used without Google services as default preloads, for example). But doing that kind of configuration is not going to be within reach of the average person. So iOS is the obvious choice for mainstream consumers.

Action: Delete your social media accounts
Who is this for: Committed privacy lovers, anyone bored with public sharing
How difficult is it: Some effort — mostly feeling like you’re going to miss out. But third party services can sometimes require a Facebook login (a workaround for that would be to create a dummy Facebook account purely for login purposes — using a name and email you don’t use for anything else, and not linking it to your usual mobile phone number or adding anyone you actually know IRL)
Tell me more: Deleting Facebook clearly isn’t for everyone. But ask yourself how much you use it these days anyway? You might find yourself realizing it’s not really that central to what you do on the Internet after all. The center of gravity in social networking has shifted away from mass public sharing into more tightly curated friend groups anyway, thanks to the popularity of messaging apps.
But of course Facebook owns Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp too. So ducking out of its surveillance dragnet entirely is especially hard. Ideally you would also need to run tracker blockers (see above) as the company tracks non-Facebook users around the Internet via the pixels it has embedded on lots of popular websites.
While getting rid of your social media accounts is not a privacy panacea, removing yourself from mainstream social network platforms at least reduces the risk of a chunk of your personal info being scraped and used without your say so. Though it’s still not absolutely guaranteed that when you delete an account the company in question will faithfully remove all your information from their servers — or indeed from the servers of any third party they shared your data with.
If you really can’t bring yourself to ditch Facebook (et al) entirely, at least dive into the settings and make sure you lock down as much access to your data as you can — including checking which apps have been connected to your account and removing any that aren’t relevant or useful to you anymore.

Action: Say no to always-on voice assistants
Who is this for: Anyone who values privacy more than gimmickry
How difficult is it: No real effort
Tell me more: There’s a rash of smart speaker voice assistants on shop shelves these days, marketed in a way that suggests they’re a whole lot smarter and more useful than they actually are. In reality they’re most likely to be used for playing music (albeit, audio quality can be very poor) or as very expensive egg timers.
Something else the PR for gadgets like Amazon’s (many) Echos or Google Home doesn’t mention is the massive privacy trade off involved with installing an always-on listening device inside your home. Essentially these devices function by streaming whatever you ask to the cloud and will typically store recordings of things you’ve said in perpetuity on the companies’ servers. Some do offer a delete option for stored audio but you would have to stay on top of deleting your data as long as you keep using the device. So it’s a tediously Sisyphean task. Smart speakers have also been caught listening to and recording things their owner didn’t actually want them to — because they got triggered by accident. Or when someone on the TV used the trigger word.
The privacy risks around smart speakers are clearly very large indeed. Not least because this type of personal data is of obvious and inevitable interest to law enforcement agencies. So ask yourself whether that fake fart dispenser gizmo you’re giggling about is really worth the trade off of inviting all sorts of outsiders to snoop on the goings on inside your home.

Action: Block some network requests
Who is this for: Paranoid people
How difficult is it: Need to be tech savvy
Tell me more: On macOS, you can install something called Little Snitch to get an alert every time an app tries to talk with a server. You can approve or reject each request and create rules. If you don’t want Microsoft Word to talk with Microsoft’s servers all the time for instance, it’s a good solution — but is not really user friendly.

Action: Use a privacy-focused operating system
Who is this for: Edward Snowden
How difficult is it: Need to be tech savvy
Tell me more: If you really want to lock everything down, you should consider using Tails as your desktop operating system. It’s a Linux distribution that leaves no trace by default, uses the Tor network for all network requests by default. But it’s not exactly user friendly, and it’s quite complicated to install on a USB drive. One for those whose threat model really is ‘bleeding edge’.

Action: Write to your political reps to demand stronger privacy laws
Who is this for: Anyone who cares about privacy, and especially Internet users in North America right now
How difficult is it: A bit of effort
Tell me more: There appears to be bipartisan appetite among U.S. lawmakers to bring in some form of regulation for Internet companies. And with new tougher rules coming in in Europe next month it’s an especially opportune moment to push for change in the U.S. where web users are facing reduced standards vs international users after May 25. So it’s a great time to write to your reps reminding them you’re far more interested in your privacy being protected than Facebook winning some kind of surveillance arms race with the Chinese. Tell them it’s past time for the U.S. to draft laws that prioritize the protection of personal data. 

Action: Throw away all your connected devices — and choose your friends wisely
Who is this for: Fugitives and whistleblowers
How difficult is it: Privacy doesn’t get harder than this
Tell me more: Last month the former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont — who, in October, dodged arrest by the Spanish authorities by fleeing to Brussels after the region’s abortive attempt to declare independence — was arrested by German police, after crossing the border from Denmark in a car. Spanish intelligence agents had reportedly tracked his movements via the GPS on the mobile device of one or more of his friends. The car had also been fitted with a tracker. Trusting anything not to snitch on you is a massive risk if your threat model is this high. The problem is you also need trustworthy friends to help you stay ahead of the surveillance dragnet that’s out to get you.

Action: Ditch the Internet entirely
Who is this for: Fugitives and whistleblowers
How difficult is it: Privacy doesn’t get harder than this
Tell me more: Public administrations can ask you to do pretty much everything online these days — and even if it’s not mandatory to use their Internet service it can be incentivized in various ways. The direction of travel for government services is clearly digital. So eschewing the Internet entirely is getting harder and harder to do.
One wild card option — that’s still not a full Internet alternative (yet) — is to use a different type of network that’s being engineered with privacy in mind. The experimental, decentralized MaidSafe network fits that bill. This majorly ambitious project has already clocked up a decade’s worth of R&D on the founders’ mission to rethink digital connectivity without compromising privacy and security by doing away with servers — and decentralizing and encrypting everything. It’s a fascinating project. Just sadly not yet a fully-fledged Internet alternative.

Android Auto now works without wires if you have the right hardware

Android Auto — Google’s system for powering your car’s dash display from your phone, and the company’s answer to Apple’s CarPlay — is going wireless. You can leave your phone in your bag, and it’ll still be able to push your apps and content to your in-dash screen.

Alas, there’s a catch: To get it all working wirelessly at this point, you’ll need to have some pretty specific gear.

You’ll need the right phone (Pixel or Pixel XL, Pixel 2 or Pixel 2 XL, Nexus 5X or Nexus 6P) and the right head unit — and for now, that means one of just a handful of units announced by JVC/Kenwood earlier this year.

The list of compatible devices will grow in time (Google says to expect more “this year”) — but if you want wireless right this second, the options are quite limited.

Is Android Popsicle next?

Barring any sort of major shakeup at Google’s mobile division, there are two things we know for sure about the next Android’s name: it will start with the letter “P” and it will be a dessert food. That already narrows things down quite a bit — you’ve got pudding, pecan pie, peanut brittle…

Then, of course, there’s Popsicle — a fact the company might well be alluding to in its new Spring Wallpaper Collection. 9to5Google noted a colorful array of frozen confections in amongst the selections. Granted, it’s not thematically too far from the rest of the outdoor, sunshine-themed offerings.

Google’s never shied away from such cheeky suggestions — and it’s certainly teased us before, including in the lead up to Oreo. Though that could just as easily mean it’s a bit of a red herring — remember Android Pocky?

It’s worth noting that Popsicle is, in fact, still a trademarked name — like Kleenex and Xerox and Frisbee. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Google in the past. See such recent examples as Kit-Kat and Oreo. And while Popsicle-owner Unilever has flexed its muscles maintaining its ownership of the name, it’s hard to imagine a better/cheaper promotion than stamping your name across the latest build of the world’s most popular mobile operating system.

There is, of course, the issue of the fact that the Popsicle name isn’t as globally synonymous with the ice pop as it is here in the States. You may know it, perhaps, as an ice lolly, ice block or ice drop, depending on where you happen to be reading this.

Whatever the case, Google’s probably just happy that we’re talking about it at all.

Google’s ‘Semantic Experiences’ let you play word games with its AI

Google does a great deal of research into natural language processing and synthesis, but not every project has to be a new Assistant feature or voice improvement. The company has a little fun now and then, when the master AI permits it, and today it has posted a few web experiments that let you engage with its word-association systems in a playful way.

First is an interesting way of searching through Google Books, that fabulous database so rarely mentioned these days. Instead of just searching for text or title verbatim, you can ask questions, like “Why was Napoleon exiled?” or “What is the nature of consciousness?”

It returns passages from books that, based on their language only, are closely associated with your question. And while the results are hit and miss, they are nice and flexible. Sentences answering my questions appeared even though they were not directly adjacent to key words or particularly specific about doing so.

I found, however, it’s not a very intuitive way to interact with a body of knowledge, at least for me. When I ask a question, I generally want to receive an answer, not a competing variety of quotes that may or may not bear on your inquiry. So while I can’t really picture using this regularly, it’s an interesting way to demonstrate the flexibility of the semantic engine at work here. And it may very well expose you to some new authors, though the 100,000 books included in the database are something of a mixed bag.

The second project Google highlights is a game it calls Semantris, though I must say it’s rather too simple to deserve the “-tris” moniker. You’re given a list of words and one in particular is highlighted. You type the word you most associate with that one, and the words will reorder with, as Google’s AI understands it, the closest matches to your word on the bottom. If you moved the target word to the bottom, it blows up a few words and adds some more.

It’s a nice little time waster, but I couldn’t help but feel I was basically just a guinea pig providing testing and training for Google’s word association agent. It was also pretty easy — I didn’t feel much of an achievement for associating “water” with “boat” — but maybe it gets harder as it goes on. I’ve asked Google if our responses are feeding into the AI’s training data.

For the coders and machine learning enthusiasts among you, Google has also provided some pre-trained TensorFlow modules, and of course documented their work in a couple of papers linked in the blog post.