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February 2020
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As The World Frets Over Social Media Tracking For Advertising, Young People Are Turning Fooling Sites Into Sport

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As the techlash continues to rage against tech and social media companies, one of the more common criticisms has been how sites track users in order to feed them advertising. Now, I won't pretend to believe that these concerns are entirely unfounded. There is something creepy about all of this. That perception is also not helped by the opaque manner in which sites operate, nor the manner in which these sites often barely inform users of the tracking that is in place. Through it all, those that have the worst opinions of the internet and tech companies often couch their concerns in hand-wringing over how these sites handle younger users.Except that, as per usual, younger users are way ahead of the adults. Rather than waiting to rely on some half-brained "for the children!" legislation, at least some youth are instead making a sport out of beating social media sites at their own game. The CNET post focuses on one teenager, Samantha Mosley, and her use of Instagram.

But unlike many of Instagram's users, Mosley and her high school friends in Maryland had figured out a way to fool tracking by the Facebook-owned social network. On the first visit, her Explore tab showed images of Kobe Bryant. Then on a refresh, cooking guides, and after another refresh, animals.  Each time she refreshed the Explore tab, it was a completely different topic, none of which she was interested in. That's because Mosley wasn't the only person using this account -- it belonged to a group of her friends, at least five of whom could be on at any given time. Maybe they couldn't hide their data footprints, but they could at least leave hundreds behind to confuse trackers.These teenagers are relying on a sophisticated network of trusted Instagram users to post content from multiple different devices, from multiple different locations.
Here's how this works. One person creates an Instagram account, or maybe more than one. Then that person requests a password reset and sends that link to a trusted friend without closing their own session. Now that both people have active sessions, person two begins uploading photos, which triggers Instagram's tracking on this new device. Rinse and repeat and suddenly you've given Instagram, which assumes it is tracking one person, a ton of data from many people. The end result is the site has no real insight into the behavior of any one person. This can be further gamed by posting photos of people that are not those operating on the account. If these users are geographically disperse, that too adds confusing data for Instagram's tracking.
"They might be like, 'Hey, you posted from this hamburger place in Germany, maybe you like Germany, or hamburgers, or traveling, we'll just throw everything at you,'" Mosley said. "We fluctuate who's sending to what account. One week I might be sending to 17 accounts, and then the next week I only have four."Facebook said that this method was not against its policies, but didn't recommend it to people because of security concerns.
So, why are these young people doing this? Part of it is something of a sport. The other part is a desire by young people for privacy. Despite all the concerns of the older generations, young people are better than average when it comes to being aware of how tech companies and social media sites are using their data, tracking them for advertising purposes, and all the rest. I imagine that part of this is these young people thumbing their noses at these companies thinking they will blindly allow this intrusion on their desired privacy.Either way, even the adults who would instead like to go the regulation or legislative routes admit this is all fairly brilliant.
Teens shouldn't have to go to those lengths to socialize privately on Instagram, said Liz O'Sullivan, technology director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. "I love that the younger generation is thinking along these lines, but it bothers me when we have to come up with these strategies to avoid being tracked," O'Sullivan said. "She shouldn't have to have these psyop [psychological operations] networks with multiple people working to hide her identity from Instagram. The platform should just have an account that works and lets people feel safe about being on social media."
All well and good, but you can wish for that in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up faster. Meanwhile, the kids are handling this just fine.

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AOC Supports Full Repeal Of FOSTA

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Late last year, a bill was introduced to study the impact of FOSTA. This is important, as all of the evidence to date suggests that it has failed by every possible measure. There is no indication that it has helped to decrease sex trafficking -- in fact the indications are that it has enabled more sex trafficking. Indeed, law enforcement has directly admitted that the law has actually made it more difficult to track down traffickers. And, of course, there's tremendous evidence that it has had a real human cost in putting (non-trafficked) sex workers at significant risk.As more in Congress realize this, it's been good to see some calling for a careful study into the impact. And now Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been the first (as far as I can tell) to come right out and say the law should be totally repealed, specifically calling out the harm that it has done to sex workers. It's great to see politicians realizing that all the lame rhetoric that was pushed out in favor of the law was bullshit.Of course, because AOC is such a polarizing figure in these insanely partisan times, the usual crew of AOC haters have immediately started spewing absolute idiocy online claiming -- falsely -- that she supports sex trafficking. It was this kind of bogus rhetoric that helped get this damaging law passed in the first place. But, since Republicans love to try to mock everything AOC says, we get silly statements like this from Rep. Pete Olson saying that she wants to "re-open the floodgates of human trafficking" and pointing to "64 human traffickers busted" in Fort Bend (in his district). While it is true that local officials arrested 64 people in a sting operation, and told the press it was for trafficking, few details have been provided. In most similar announcements, later research often found that the operations had little to do with trafficking, and were just standard sex work. Either way, if FOSTA was supposed to stop such "trafficking," it seems like Olson is flat out admitting that it didn't work here.And, of course, Senator Josh Hawley -- who you may recall, has decided that he alone should make all UI decisions for the internet -- has ridiculously claimed that this is AOC "supporting big tech and sex trafficking" when it's literally neither of those things. The idea that partisan idiots are jumping on this just because of who is suggesting it is perhaps not surprising, but still disappointing.Even if you disagree with AOC on other things, it's a good thing that she recognizes what a failure FOSTA has been and how it's put lives in jeopardy. Repealing FOSTA is the right move and kudos to AOC for being the first Congressional Rep to come out and advocate for it.

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