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What’s the Deal with Ad Blocking?

F-Secure just released a free ad blocker for 64-bit Apple devices running iOS 9. The new app, called F-Secure AdBlocker, is an easy-to-use app that can help people save data and browse faster by preventing ads from loading in Safari (and apps using Safari View).

Ad blocking has created a bit of controversy lately, but this shouldn’t really surprise content providers. Historically, there’s always been some kind of pushback whenever people get the feeling that ads are becoming too intrusive. And the recent controversy stirred up by Apple’s addition of content blocking capabilities in its most recent iOS release seems to be continuing this trend.

This insightful blog post on the matter compares ad blocking to the pop-up blockers that proliferated after pop-up ads began pissing off the Internet. Blocking pop-ups didn’t result in the kind of adpocalypse that many claim is the situation being ushered in by iOS’ new content blocking capabilities. One recent study effectively summarizes the concerns surrounding ad blocking with one statistic: publishers stand to lose 22 billion dollars in 2015 because of ad blocking.

However, the same research demonstrates that there is considerable demand for ad blocking products. Nearly 200 million people are now using ad blockers – that’s a 41% increase in the past 12 months.

And many people, even those writing for the publishers that are losing revenue due to ad blocking, admit that this demand is completely justified. This article in the New York Times describes modern advertising practices as “the most terrible thing about the Internet”, and a recent study from the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK seems to confirm this. Over half of the survey respondents characterized ads as “annoying” and said that they slowed down web browsing. Furthermore, 73% of respondents felt that ads were intrusive, and 31% said they were concerned about how targeted ads impacted their privacy.

This adds up to what might be thought of as a perfect storm of discontent about advertising. Cory Doctorow gave a compelling analysis of the situation in a recent article published in the Guardian. Doctorow suggests that the relationship between publishers and advertisers has created a situation justifying the need for ad blocking, which is being driven by the “annoyance at the content of ads; annoyance at the effect of ads in slowing computers to a crawl and worries about privacy.”

So ads are a nuisance because they contain content that people don’t care about, they slow down websites by increasing the amount of content that browsers are trying to load, and people worry about how they’re being targeted by ads.

F-Secure Labs actively researches how the web works, and have data that seem to support the idea that ads are becoming intrusive at the expense of users. Over 100 of the top domains on the World Wide Web are used entirely for advertising and tracking. And F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan has published recent blog posts examining how using F-Secure’s Freedome VPN can speed up web browsing by stripping out the data used by third party trackers.

Content on the World Wide Web tends to be freely available (as in people can see it or read it without having to pay the people providing that content). The companies that produce this content are able to stay in business by selling space to advertisers, who then embed their messages on the same page in the hopes that the audience will see the ad and buy whatever product or service the ad is about. So in this sense, advertising is a kind of necessary evil.

But Sullivan points out that this shouldn’t be seen as some sort of carte blanche to force annoying content on people. “There’s plenty of ways advertising is regulated in other types of media, so the idea that people shouldn’t have some way to tone down the ad content they see online is a little silly. Turning down the volume on a TV ad is perfectly ok, and volume levels are often regulated to prevent ads from being too intrusive. Bringing ad blocking to digital media is really just giving people a way to turn down the noise. Hopefully ad blocking will be seen as an opportunity for advertisers to make more of the content people want, rather than the stuff people ignore and want to block.”

F-Secure AdBlocker is a free app that blocks ads in Safari and apps using Safari View. It is currently available from Apple’s App Store, and works on Apple devices with iOS 9 and ARM64 (including iPhone 5S and later models, iPad mini 2/Retina 3 and later models, iPad Air and later models, and 6th generation iPod Touch).

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The 5 Minute Guide™ to App Store Security and Privacy

Mobile devices have largely avoided the malware outbreaks that have plagued PCs for decades now for a simple reason -- app stores. Nearly all -- or even all -- the software that's on your phone or tablet now came through these official portals, where they endured some degree of vetting. But this doesn't mean it's impossible to have your security or privacy compromised by bad apps. Here's a quick run-through of the basics you need to know to keep the data on your mobile device safe and private. 1. Stick to the official app stores. If you have an iOS device, you can only use the official App Store, unless you "jailbreak" your device and take your security into your own hands. Android users, however, have more freedom. And with freedom, there's a little danger. "Anything ending in .apk might be malicious," Tom Van De Wiele, F-Secure Security Consultant, tells me. "So the official Google Play store is the only place you should get your apps." He offers a simple metaphor to remember this concept: "You don’t pick up shiny food from the street and put it in your mouth either, no matter what the promise is." In case you missed the point: The Play store is the clean table -- everywhere else is the grimy, filthy floor. 2. ANDROID USERS: Make sure to block downloads from "Unknown sources". "Phishing campaigns are focussing on providing .apk files to unsuspecting victims by email, SMS, MMS, Skype and other means," Tom says. He recommends you avoid these scams by blocking downloads from unknown sources. To do this, via iKidApps.com: Navigate to your Android phone’s home screen. Tap the Android "Menu" button. Choose "Settings". Open "Applications". Make sure there is no green check mark next to the Unknown sources item. If there is a green check mark next to Unknown sources, disable the setting. 3. ANDROID AND IOS USERS: Don't assume that your apps have been vetted for privacy. "It is not in Google’s interest to remove a lot of apps as they generate advertisement revenue for Google," Tom says, adding that the Play store doesn't do nearly as much vetting for malicious apps as the Apple iOS store does and instead opts for a “clean-up-as-you-go model." But that doesn't mean iOS apps are completely nuisance free. "Apple has the 'walled garden' of trying to control what they can when it comes to their application eco-system," he says. "This does not take into account apps that invade your privacy by asking you, for example if the app can 'access the address book', which will result in sending the contents of the address book to a remote location." You have to check the app permissions yourself to avoid these data-farming apps. 4. Look out for "bait ware." Both app stores have been plagued by what Tom calls "bait ware". These are apps "where the user is fooled into generating a lot of advertisement revenue by randomly popping up ads, fake buttons and other arbitrary functionality." New parents need to especially be on the lookout for these apps. "This is especially prevalent in baby and toddler applications which look very enticing to download and try but are merely empty husks with interwoven advertisement." Why do these apps prosper despite their dubious quality? Tom says, "Both Apple and Google are reluctant to remove them as it becomes a slippery slope on where to draw the line between sincere and malevolent behavior of an application." 5. "Walled gardens" aren't perfect solutions so check reviews and be suspicious of newer apps. Google's approach invites malicious apps to occasionally appear in its store. Often they're imitations or clones of much more popular apps. This is much, much more rare in the iOS App Store, but it has happened. To preserve your security, privacy and disk space, do some basic due diligence and check the reviews to see if they seem real and offer some substantive testimony that the app is legit. [Image by PhotoAtelier | Flickr]

January 17, 2017
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5 Must-Read Online Privacy Articles from 2016

A great deal has happened within the online privacy sphere in the last 12 months. The subject has become a genuinely hot topic, and we have done our best to dissect relevant industry issues into an easily readable form while reporting directly from the eye of the storm, so to speak. Here are five essential reads to get you up to speed on the state of online privacy, VPN, and related topics. An Open Letter to Businesses who Block VPN on Their Wi-Fi Networks Ultimately, allowing the use of VPN on your Wi-Fi hotspot is your call. However, if you truly care about your customers, don’t be in the minority of businesses that forces them to give up their online security and privacy while browsing on your network. A Twitter user asked us a question that inspired our most viral article of the year, as well as the video response we produced as a follow-up. In the post and video, we emphasize the fact that companies end up shooting themselves in the foot by putting their customers’ security at risk. If you ever come across this consumer-unfriendly practice, we urge you to share the article and/or video! Read the full article here. How Does Encryption Work? “. . .It’s easy to forget that easy access to encryption greatly benefits even normal web users like you and me.” Our widely shared article on encryption exhibits a 360-degree view on encryption, providing readers with an overview of its history and a straightforward explanation of how modern VPNs ingeniously work to protect your privacy. If you’re interested in learning what’s under the hood of online privacy, this article is for you. 4 People Who See What Porn You Watch “A large majority of web users are lulled into a false sense of security by Incognito mode or private browsing, but this is only one of the steps needed toward becoming private online.” Many things take place “behind the scenes” on the Internet – these are things that we can’t see and therefore don’t think about. This admittedly attention-grabbing headline was meant as a wakeup call to the fact that adult content browsing histories aren’t as private as most people would like to think. Read up on a few people who have access to your porn browsing history, as well as some quick tips that can help prevent snooping. Privacy, Patriotism and PR: The Case of Apple vs. FBI “In this debate, privacy, patriotism and public relations are just some of the factors influencing a public discourse that has shifted to reflect new and often clashing attitudes towards encryption.” The Apple Vs. FBI case was the Clash of the Titans between privacy players that dominated mainstream news outlets throughout the first half of 2016, with ripples that are sure to affect the dynamics between companies and governments for years to come. We made a conscious effort to explore the issue from every possible angle, and the article is still a very relevant read. Why Do Newspapers Spy on You? “The longer something on the Internet is free, the harder it will be to make people start paying for it.” Who pays for a product that costs something to make but is free for the customer? In this article, we look at the idiosyncratic purchasing habits of modern web users and why these habits have lead news websites and other services to sacrifice their visitors’ privacy in order to stay in business. This piece is good food for thought for all consumers of online news.    

January 13, 2017
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Mikko Hypponen: ‘Data is the New Oil’

"I believe data is the new oil," F-Secure's chief research officer Mikko Hypponen says. "And just like oil brought us both prosperity and problems, data will bring us prosperity, and problems." We're just beginning to understand how so-called "big data" is changing everything, even medical care. A new report from the Century Foundation reveals how the private information we share with practitioners gets anonymized and then mined. That information combined with metrics from search engines and wearables can then be melded for "predicative analysis" which is able to project behavior with “a surprising degree of accuracy," despite laws meant to protect medical privacy. Presumably these learnings could be used to make us healthier but they could also be used to deny us treatments or insurance coverage. And while we worry about government surveillance, many of us voluntarily share our thoughts, pictures and intimate details about our lives with Facebook, which then purchases more information about us from third-parties to make sure the ads we see are even more effective. Mikko has noted that Twitter connects our offline data to our profiles through our phone number. So when you share your mobile number for a proactive reason, such as activating two-factor authentication or account recovery, we're also feeding the data beast to make ourselves even more profitable to the sites we use. And then there's Internet of Things, which is coming into your home whether you like it or not. "You will buy whole appliances and you won't even know they are IoT appliances. I mean, you go and buy a toaster and there is an IoT feature... Why would you even need IoT features in a goddamn toaster?" Mikko asks. "But it's going to be online anyway. Why? Because it's going to be so cheap to put it online. And the benefits it creates are not benefits for you, the consumer, they're benefits for the manufacturer. Because now they can collect analytics." Our Freedome VPN team has found that when it comes to connecting with free Wi-Fi, people are willing to give up almost anything -- even their first born. Data. On one hand, prosperity and opportunity. On the other, problems and problems we haven't yet imagined. That's why controlling our personal information matters more than ever. Data Privacy Day -- held annually on 28 January -- is an international effort to get people around the globe to think about the importance of controlling what we share. To mark the day, Mikko will be doing a Reddit IAmA on the day before -- 27 January -- where you can ask him anything and our Freedome VPN team will be in the streets spreading the word about the importance of privacy. To prepare you can read Mikko's recent Q&A session on Quora and feast on this playlist of dozens of talks and interviews he's given: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAChQaySECY?list=PLkMjG1Mo4pKIRUqHj1eUMDqvV5a0o2CoS]

January 12, 2017
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