Tag: technology

Gripes About the Instagram Algorithmic Feed

The algorithm-driven Instagram feed was rolled out a while ago, but it’s only recently I’ve noticed much of a difference. Unfortunately the difference, particularly in the last couple of weeks, has been increasingly negative. So much so I really wish there was a way to opt-out!

Basically it comes down to I’m not seeing what I want to see at the time I want to see it, often leading me to just close the app after scrolling down a little bit. So as a way of “increasing engagement” it utterly fails.

A trivial example: I follow WWE on Instagram. Every Monday and Tuesday night, they post 6-12 photos from the goings on at Monday Night Raw, and Smackdown Live. Every Tuesday/Wednesday morning, I would like to open up Instagram and be able to scroll through to see what happened. This used to work, but some time in the last few weeks it changed so these photos show up randomly in my feed over the next 2-4 days – after I’ve already got the information from other sources, and definitely past the point I want the photos to show up at the top. The photos never show in chronological order, and never show as a batch of more than 1-2 at a time.

For the accounts I follow who aren’t brands (i.e. friends, shared interest accounts, etc), often it’s the people I like or comment on the least who appear near the top, and often the most trite, uninteresting photos they’ve posted. Why show me the video of a friend’s baby’s adorable first laugh, another friend’s stunning macro photography, or a popular post from an interest account, when 4 out of 6 of the photos at the top of my feed are #MondayMotivation meme nonsense? With the other 2 being drinks/food from someone’s night out 3 days ago?

Is it just me? I don’t think so, but maybe it’s just particularly bad on my feed? What’re your experiences with Instagram lately?

Getting Started with Online Privacy and Security in 2017 – First Steps

So after the preamble, which should give you a frame of reference to what I’m aiming to do in this mini-series of posts about improving my online privacy and security, this short post will talk about the first steps I’m taking to tighten everything up. As this is all at the very beginning of my learning journey, all of these might change in the future. If they do, I will update the post and add a comment below.

In this post I look at two of the fundamentals of privacy on the web: the web browser and search engine. I’m mainly looking at the desktop for now, rather than mobile, mainly because it’s simpler to focus on one thing while I wrap my head around this stuff!

A Change of Browser

I’ve been using Chrome for years, after it usurped Firefox as the “fast, alternative” browser for Windows. These days, Chrome has become seriously bloated – it’s routinely consuming multiple gigabytes of RAM on my desktop. It may be (usually) fast despite of that, but it slows the rest of the computer. What’s more, it’s so deeply wired into Google’s ecosystem that it’s arguably as much a data hoover for Google as it is a browser.

So I was in the market for a new browser to begin with, and I was looking into alternatives like Chromium or Opera. But once I started diving into things a bit more, pretty much every recommendation for privacy-minded software recommended good-old Firefox, so that’s what I’ve gone with. I followed the configuration guide at PrivacyTools.io, as well as:

  • Turn on Do Not Track
  • Set Firefox to never remember my browsing/download/search/form history
  • Never accept third-party cookies
  • Only keep cookies until I close the browser
  • Never remember logins for sites
  • Turned off Firefox Health Report, Telemetry, and Crash Reporter

Extensions

Most of the extensions I had installed in Chrome were privacy-minded anyway, so were equally applicable to Firefox. Some additions came recommended. At the moment I am using the following:

Mobile

The situation on mobile (in my case, iOS) is a bit less clear. For now I’m not using the Chrome iOS app, reverting to Safari with the addition of a content blocker.

Downsides

The biggest issue with the above setup is it removes a few conveniences: remembering pinned tabs between browser sessions; having to login to websites every time you visit; having to retrace your steps to find a page in the future, if you don’t bookmark it at the time… that sort of thing. I might do a little tuning on this, relaxing the settings a little, but overall I think this might be one of those things that I need to live with.

A Change of Search Engine

Apart from a brief flirtation with DuckDuckGo a few years back, I’ve always used Google as my search engine. It’s constantly been the most reliable, fastest, and all-round best at what it does.

Even so, I’ve never been 100% happy with the fact that Google collects just about every data point they can, that it’s all wrapped up in your Google account, linked to everything you do in their other services, and made available for advertisement targetting (amongst who knows how many other things). As someone who’s had a Gmail account since they were invite only, I know Google has a fucktonne of data on me already; the genie is well and truly out of the bottle in that regard.

That doesn’t mean I can’t stop giving them more data. Sure, they’ll get the odd bit here and there when I use YouTube, or the odd email that hits my old, pretty much unused Gmail account, but that’s really it – if I change my search engine to somewhere else.

The obvious thing to do would be to revert back to DuckDuckGo, as I already have experience of it, and it’s accurate enough… but I wanted to try something different for the moment, while I’m still in the learning phase of this little project.

I tried all the recommendations at PrivacyTools.io. Searx generally gave me terrible results, but is an interesting idea; Qwant gave me some decent web results, but the included News results were mostly irrelevant, and I couldn’t find a way to turn these off. StartPage had been recommended in other places too, and overall was the best performing of the bunch – possibly not surprising, as it’s effectively a proxy for Google search, so seems like a win-win in this case. For now, I’ve set it as the default search engine in Firefox.

Mobile

For searches on my iPhone, I’ve set the default search engine to DuckDuckGo, as it’s the best of those available.

Getting Started with Online Privacy and Security in 2017 – Preamble

In 2017 I’m trying to be be a bit more privacy and security-minded when using the web (on all devices). I’ve been increasingly interested in these areas for a few years, and especially since the Snowden revelations, and recent events like the IP Bill, aka the “Snoopers Charter,” in the UK have pushed me further towards them. Over the next few weeks I’m going to look into (and try to document here) various things I can do to increase my security, decrease the amount of information applications and services can collect on me, and generally “take back control” of my online privacy.

I work in the tech industry, I’m fairly conscious about this stuff, and understand a few of the elements and technologies, but it’s really a very basic understanding. What I do know might be out of date. At this stage it might be too little too late… right now I don’t really know.

Upfront: I fully recognise that if the police/MI5/NSA/FSB/whoever really wanted my data, nothing I could do would be able to stop them.

security

Also upfront: even with that in mind, whatever I put in place won’t be considered “perfect.” What I’m looking to do is balance convenience, practicality, and security. If something is too difficult or fiddly to use, it will end up not being used.

Thinking specifically about the IP Bill, far too many agencies for my liking will have complete, unfettered access to what I get up to on the internet. Beyond that one example, the amount of web ad trackers we have to contend with nowadays is snowballing, as are the services amassing data to pay for those “free” apps we enjoy.

While it might be that none of these data collectors have nefarious purposes in mind (if you’re trusting), data security breaches are becoming bigger and more frequent. Data being stored is likely to leak or be stolen at some point, so the best you can hope for is to limit the amount of potentially harmful data1 being held.

On a lighter note, here’s a great spoof from Cassetteboy about the IP Bill

So all this is a bit of a long-winded preamble to saying look out for the future posts where I talk about what I have learned, how I’m applying it, any recommendations I have, and how you can do the same. The first post on some of the basics, and links to reading materials will be coming today/tomorrow. In the meantime, are there any tips or good sources you’ve come across? Feel free to share in the comments.


  1. Insert definition of what you would consider “harmful data if leaked” 

“Just One More Go…”

One of the gifts I bought Girl Wonder for Christmas was the Nintendo NES Classic Mini. I managed to get in the 2nd preorder batch from the official Nintendo UK site, and it arrived just in time to be put under the tree. I’ll have some more thoughts on the NES Mini itself, later. Anyway, I set it up last night so she could have her first play-through of some of the games (Super Mario 3 is her favourite game of all-time). It’s safe to say it was a hit. I went to bed just after 10pm after being told “I’m just having one more go [at Dr. Mario].” At 00:30am she finally came to bed.

A Few Quick, Early Thoughts on iOS 10

Lock Screen

Raise to Wake is a feature I’ve wanted for a while, so I love that. It sometimes seems a little sensitive, but I guess I’ll either get used to it, or it’ll be tweaked in a software update. The new behaviour of unlocking your phone without going to the Home Screen until you press the Home button seemed a bit unintuitive to me, I’ve changed a setting under General > Accessibility > Home Button to remove the press.

Notifications

Functionally, the new notifications are great, and will get better as more apps embrace the feature. Like others, I’m not a fan of the styling, which is very evocative of “Web 2.0”. Clear All is another minor feature I’ve wanted forever, so I’m glad that’s there; I just wish I hadn’t had to Google to discover it’s hidden behind a 3D Touch gesture. These hidden or unintuitive features and gestures are probably my biggest peeve with iOS 10 for now.

Related to the notification area, I don’t get why the “Today” widget area is duplicated here and to the left of the Home Screen. One or the other would’ve been better, at least in my opinion. Maybe because I never used the old “Today” screen, but did use the old search screen which used to be to the left of the Home Screen…

Messages

Overall I like the update, but I’ve found some of the new features to be really unintuitive to use. The message styles (hidden ink, balloons, etc) are hidden behind a 3D Touch of the send button – so if you don’t get it right you’ll find yourself accidentally sending the message before it’s finished. This is a very minor thing, but it does cause frustration. I also found the Digital Ink features to be confusing to use, and the associated gestures a bit hit-and-miss. “Playback” of these messages is also hit-and-miss: sometimes they play automatically, but most times they don’t.

This article from The Verge has a good rundown of the new features of iMessage and how they work.

Other

Being able to (finally) remove in-built apps is obviously something which has received some headlines. Surprisingly, I’ve removed fewer than I expected… I think it’s only Stocks, Tips, Find My Friends and weather. I’ve actually found myself switching to a couple of the in-built apps

“Until Politicians Make the Effort to Understand the Internet, They Must Leave it Alone”

Alex Wickham’s take on the recent comments from David Cameron, and the general inability (unwillingness) of politicians to understand the Internet:

In the first two weeks of 2015 we have already seen several chilling examples of the state seeking to curb freedom of expression on the internet. Yesterday, Cameron committed the Conservative Party to introducing “comprehensive” legislation to further extend internet surveillance laws. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, summed up the Tory position: “I’m not interested in this civil liberties stuff. If they’re a threat, I want their emails and calls listened to”.…

…Yet, patently, politicians do not understand the internet. Put on the spot during a Q&A about Snapchat, a mobile app used mainly by young people to send pictures, Cameron threatened to ban it.

The attitude, and lack of understanding of what they (the politicians) are saying, is worrying enough. But then:

Then there is the even more sinister behaviour of the Electoral Commission, the body which regulates elections in the UK. Under the guise of Cameron’s shoddy Lobbying Act, they have written intimidating letters to political bloggers warning them they have to abide by new rules dictating what they can and cannot say.

I’d not heard about this use of the Lobbying Act against bloggers (I try to stay up-to-date with the news where UK politics, civil liberties, and technology meet), so that’s worrying in itself. It’s a very gross misapplication of the law — entirely designed to limit speech — and has no place in an open democracy.

Just because politicians do not understand the internet, it does not give them the right to impinge on the freedoms of every person who uses it. If they want to come up with serious policies about how to stop the bad things that happen online, they first have to make the effort to understand how the internet works.

Exactly.

“What David Cameron just proposed would endanger every Briton and destroy the IT industry”

Cory Doctorow on the scary rhetoric coming from the Conservative Prime Minister, just before the next General Election:

David Cameron says there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read” — and no doubt many in his party will agree with him, politically. But if they understood the technology, they would be shocked to their boots.

Every time I hear senior politicians talking about technology (usually in the context of “security” and “safety”) it becomes clear they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

(Image: Facepalm, Brandon Grasley, CC-BY)