Google’s Chrome Web Browser "Has Become Spy Software"


Google’s Chrome is essentially spy software according to Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler, who spent a week analyzing the popular browser and concluded that it “looks a lot like surveillance software.” 

Fowler has since switched to Mozilla’s Firefox because of its default privacy settings, and says that it was easier than one might imagine. 

My tests of Chrome vs. Firefox unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of Web surfing on my desktop, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker “cookies” that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox. These little files are the hooks that data firms, including Google itself, use to follow what websites you visit so they can build profiles of your interests, income and personality.

Chrome welcomed trackers even at websites you would think would be private. I watched Aetna and the Federal Student Aid website set cookies for Facebook and Google. They surreptitiously told the data giants every time I pulled up the insurance and loan service’s log-in pages.

And that’s not the half of it.

Look in the upper right corner of your Chrome browser. See a picture or a name in the circle? If so, you’re logged in to the browser, and Google might be tapping into your Web activity to target ads. Don’t recall signing in? I didn’t, either. Chrome recently started doing that automatically when you use Gmail. –Washington Post

When you use Chrome, signing into Gmail automatically logs in the browser to your Google account. When “sync” is also on, Google receives your browsing history. (Geoffrey Fowler/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Chrome is even worse when it comes to mobile devices – reporting the precise location of Android users unless location sharing is turned off, in which case it will send out your rough coordinates. 

Cookie monsters

According to one study, tracking cookies from third-parties are on 92% of websites. The Washington Post, for example, uses around 40 – which the company said is “average for a news site,” and says they are designed to deliver better-targeted ads and track ad performance. 

But cookies can also be found on websites with no advertising. 

Both Aetna and the FSA service said the cookies on their sites help measure their own external marketing campaigns.

The blame for this mess belongs to the entire advertising, publishing and tech industries. But what responsibility does a browser have in protecting us from code that isn’t doing much more than spying? –Washington Post

Mozilla to the rescue?

For the past four years or so, Firefox browser has had a built-in anti-tracking feature for the past four or so years in its “private” browsing mode. Earlier this month, Mozilla activated this feature for normal browsing mode. While ads will still appear, Firefox is now separating cookies in real time to determine which ones are required for a website to function correctly, and which ones are simply spies. 

Apple began to block cookies on their Safari mobile browser starting in 2017, using an algorithm the company calls “intelligent tracking protection.”

Chrome, meanwhile, continues to welcome cookies onto your computer and phone with open arms. That said, the company announced last month that it would require third-party cookies to better identify themselves, which will supposedly allow them to apply better controls. That said, the company did not offer The Post a timeline or say whether it would employ default tracking blockers. 

I’m not holding my breath. Google itself, through its Doubleclick and other ad businesses, is the No. 1 cookie maker — the Mrs. Fields of the Web. It’s hard to imagine Chrome ever cutting off Google’s moneymaker. –Washington Post

“Cookies play a role in user privacy, but a narrow focus on cookies obscures the broader privacy discussion because it’s just one way in which users can be tracked across sites,” according to Chrome’s director of product management, Ben Galbraith. “This is a complex problem, and simple, blunt cookie blocking solutions force tracking into more opaque practices.” 

Giving up on Google

In his decision to kick Chrome to the curb, Fowler cites a blog post by Johns Hopkins associate professor Matthew Green, who said last year he was “done” with the browser. 

Like Green, I’ve chosen Firefox, which works across phones, tablets, PCs and Macs. Apple’s Safari is also a good option on Macs, iPhones and iPads, and the niche Brave browser goes even further in trying to jam the ad-tech industry.

What does switching to Firefox cost you? It’s free, and downloading a different browser is much simpler than changing phones.

In 2017, Mozilla launched a new version of Firefox called Quantum that made it considerably faster. In my tests, it has felt almost as fast as Chrome, though benchmark tests have found it can be slower in some contexts. Firefox says it’s better about managing memory if you use lots and lots of tabs. 

Switching means you’ll have to move your bookmarks, and Firefox offers tools to help. Shifting passwords is easy if you use a password manager. And most browser add-ons are available, though it’s possible you won’t find your favorite. –Washington Post

Perhaps Fowler can reach out to some of his Washington Post colleagues to see what their many sources in the US intelligence community think of Chrome vs. Firefox… 


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