Charlie Harvey

Collusion: How UK protest websites help business and the police

Online privacy and anonymity should be important for all of us. Doubly so for activists who are likely to get up the noses of capitalist business and the police. Ideally, then, the websites of protest groups ought to steer clear of technology that shares the identities of visitors with advertising companies like Google and Facebook, both of whom co-operate with the state and make available their data to marketers and paying companies. They certainly shouldn't be making the jobs of marketing executives and capitalist businesspeople easier. I had a quick and hugely unscientific look at how well some of the most well known activist sites are doing at avoiding compromising our privacy.

Collusion: The plugin and the practice

The Collusion plugin for Firefox is a great tool for visualising how companies are tracking you. It is described on the download site thus an experimental add-on for Firefox and allows you to see all the third parties that are tracking your movements across the Web. It will show, in real time, how that data creates a spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.

I added Collusion to my Firefox and the visited a number of protest organizers sites, listed below. I clicked around a bit when I got there in a vague simulation of how a typical visitor might use the site. As you can see from the resulting chart, tracking was pervasive and in many cases could track users between different sites.

With the exception of the Tech Tools for Activism and SolFed sites, every single one of these protest sites contained tracking software for at least one advertising agency or other capitalist business. There has been a fair amount of coverage of how protest sites unwittingly (or even wittingly if such a word exists) participate in surveillance of their users, I’ll briefly touch on some of the problems.

When a group wants to organize online it faces a dilemma. Twitter and Facebook both present huge numbers of users interested in similar issues to whom the activists can address callouts and involve in their campaign. The protest group has an interest in building what internet types call its "social graph" that is to say a bunch of friends or followers that are connected to it. To do so it will probably add a Facebook "like" button, some Twitter widgets and Google's analytics tracking software. But by doing this it exposes all visitors to its site to having their data collected by these companies. The data collected this way is stored and sold to the highest bidder in different forms. The protest group has become a participant in the advertising market, selling its users details on to companies who are profit motivated, rather than social justice motivated.

But the problem doesn't finish with protest sites being treated as mere billboards for capitalist business, problematic though that ought to be for anti-capitalists. Because site visitors can be identified by the tracking company, that data can be passed on to interested third parties as well as being used to show us adverts. Interested third parties certainly includes the state and police. We know that the UK police are keen on spying on activists and it seems inconceivable that they wouldn't use much cheaper data-centric methods for gathering data on us, too.

Activists should also be deploying countermeasures that render tracking mechanisms ineffective

Whilst being on facebook may be a tactical necessity for campaigners, we need to avoid exposing website visitors to unnecessary risks. Sites need to remove mechanisms that leak their visitors data, but all activists should also be deploying countermeasures that render the tracking mechanisms ineffective. After all, activist sites are by no means the only ones that track visitors.

There are two sides to avoiding being tracked — obfuscating by using a proxy of some sort and adding tracking countermeasures to your browser. The tracking countermeasures I advise using are covered in 5 best firefox privacy plugins. Briefly, you should be using Ghostery and possibly also Ad Block Plus to zap well known bits of tracking software. A proxy can also help you avoid tracking, among the best for activists are the Aktivix VPN and the Riseup VPN. There is a good explanation of how a VPN works on the Tech Tools for Activism website or a good general video intro to proxies below. Another option is TOR, The Onion Router, which routes your traffic through many layers of machines on the interwebs.

Shouts out to Mark for spotting my bad spelling and suggesting dilemma as a more correct word than paradox.


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