What's proprivacy.com? 2022-03-30
This morning I got an email that I want to share. It was from someone named Daryll and was about an online utility that is supposed to ruin Google's ability to profile you. This is what it said:
Daryll here from Pro Privacy.
I noticed you shared PrivacyTools.io and so I thought I’d reach out about one of our free tools - Ruin My Search History.
It’s a free tool that helps people “ruin their search history” and stop Google from building up an accurate profile of you when using their search engine.
Here’s the link - https://proprivacy.com/tools/ruinmysearchhistory
If you think others will find this helpful, perhaps you could add alongside the other privacy tools here - https://snork.ca/posts/2019-12-30-a-better-email-provider/
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Thanks in advance.
What is the bubble?
The idea of a "bubble" is that Google (in this example) has many services such as GMail, their search engine, and their AdWords marketing garbage. As you go about your day... reading your email, searching for photos of naked people, and browsing various web sites that interest you, Google remembers the stuff you look at. Google later uses that collection of information to make sure that you see the advertising that is most likely to get you to buy crap. They don't care if you do not need it and they do not care if it is an inappropriate purchase for you. They just care if you buy stuff, which makes them look like a good advertising platform.
This creates a bubble in which your digital life exists. It means that you start to only see things you like and conflicting views are more and more hidden from you. Perhaps you like the idea of only seeing things you like... however, if that is the case then neither snork.ca nor proprivacy.com are for you anyways and I have no idea how you got here. I think that never seeing opposing viewpoints is a dangerous practice and leads to the same kind of eliteist attitudes that you would find in racist, misogynist, bigoted groups. The bottom line is that if you are only ever shown "what you like" it can affect your long-term view of the world in ways that make you feel like your shit doesn't stink, when really... it might.
What is the "Ruin My Search History" utility?
So... I went and had a look at proprivacy.com. They seem to have some recommendations for various VPNs, password managers, email providers, and storage providers. I checked their "About Us" page but did not see the name Darryl there at all. They have a menu at the top right named "Our Privacy Tools" where I found a link to the Ruin My Search History utility as well as a few others. The first is called Blocked In China Tool, and it supposedly checks [from 5 different in-China locations] to see if a given site is blocked in China. I typed in walmart.ca and minutes later it was still barfing up messages like:
Looks broken to me. The second utility is "Password strength checker" which lets you type in a password and it will then barf up a message saying that you shouldn't type your passwords in to some garbage web site you can't trust. It is true that you shouldn't type passwords in to any web site that the password isn't specifically for, but there is also nothing stopping proprivacy.com from harvesting the passwords people type in, even though they say:
You should never give out passwords to any website unless you are 100% confident that the process is secure! ProPrivacy is a trusted privacy resource - we haven’t stored your data and we never will. But not all sites are trustworthy. If anyone ever asks for your password for any reason, just say no!
Seriously, I don't know who has audited proprivacy.com to ensure that they are a "trusted privacy resource" but it wasn't me. The next tool is their Ruin My Search History utility which basically opens a new tab which quickly does random searches (50 searches by default). Part of the problem with this is that it doesn't ruin anything. It just makes Google's database think that in addition to your usual searches you are also interested in cheating on your wife and are concerned about being fat. A much better way to get out of Google's bubble is to stop using Google. Yeah, no shit. Just giving Google less [or no] information about you works better than jamming a bunch of fake searches in to their web site. This thing doesn't even take in to consideration that Google not only remembers what you searched for, but also that they track which of the results you click on. The utility just does a search and immediately jumps to the next search. If you don't click on a single link in 50 consecutive searches you think Google might be able to figure out that you're not really searching at all?
Their next utility is a Third-Party Tracking Tool, which told me that walmart.ca has 0 trackers. Now, that is some grade-A bullshit. walmart.ca is packed full of beacons and trackers like criteo and bazarrvoice... if the utility can't find those, it is missing a LOT. The remainer of the privacy tools section is just stuff saying you should use a VPN and various links to go buy VPN services. In fact, in looking around the site, that seems to be most of the content. Various descriptions of why you should fear tracking, statements that a VPN will help, and links to buy VPNs. To be honest, I think they may just be pushing products.
What are affiliate links?
So why should anyone care about any of that crap? Well, I think it is a good idea to be familiar with WHY Internet based content exists. Clearly my web site sucks. The colourful language only serves to amplify the 1980's visual style, and most of my posts seem to be irritated with somebody. More importantly, I do not make any money from anybody clicking on links here at snork.ca. The folks at proprivacy.com DO make money when you use their links. They basically made agreements (or at least accounts) with various companies that sell online services such as VPNs and they get a cut when you use their links to buy those services. The point? You should be skeptical of anyone who says:
- There is something to be afraid of (digital profiling in this case)
- We have something that will defend against this problem (a VPN in this case)
- Here are some links to the solution to your problem
It seems to me they are just coming up with a problem to fit the potential revenue source they already have. The way it works is that the links in their evaluation of each VPN provider actually point to (for example):
Okay, so that was slightly modified because I don't want anyone to actually use it. Anyways, when you click on that link, your browser accesses that URL which creates an entry in the proprivacy.com web server logs that might look something like this:
2022-03-30T14:53:20-04:00 188.8.131.52 "GET /goto/expressvpn/top10_p.1.bestbuytable.cta_t.1_l.en_pid.4528 HTTP/1.1" 301 "https://proprivacy.com/sellout/" "Mozilla/4.0 Firefox is a crappy browser"
This tells proprivacy which page you were looking at when you clicked the link (also known as referrer), the date and time you clicked it, what IP address you had at the time, what browser you were using, and which link you clicked on. Over time, as they collect more data they can tell who is clicking, which VPN writeup is most popular, which one generates the most revenue for them, and even what time of day or day of the week is most profitable. It then silently redirects your browser to the page of ExpressVPN (in this case) where you can buy their service and pass on a little money to proprivacy.
Full disclosure: proprivacy actually does admit that they make money off of the affiliate links, however I think it is at least a little bit suspicious to say that:
All of our reviews are 100% impartial.
when it is clear that 100% of their external links point to affiliate links that make them money. It is pretty obvious to me that either "Daryll" didn't read any of my web site at all, or he was staggeringly unable to pick up on the fact that I would of course consider proprivacy to be nothing more than a corporate sellout.