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My thoughts on Ubuntu Adware

Written by: Peter Fisher on February 10, 2013
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Recently Canonical announced that in Ubuntu 12.04 Amazon adverts will be included in Unity search results. This would mean that desktop searches through Unity will now be sent to Amazon and in return Amazon adverts will be included in the search results. Now this could spark up privacy concerns but lets face it, lots of companies are doing a similar thing. Google stores a load of information about your search queries from Android phones and the browser. In return Google display adSense adverts which relate to your keywords. So the concept of sharing data and returning advertisements is nothing new. However  this change will allow data to be sent to third parties from the operating system.

In my opinion this is a huge jump in data sharing and one which has to be treated with care, respect and a pinch of caution. Data held on a local computer is normally more private than data held on the web. For instance my personal accounts are held on my computer but the software that I use to keep my account records can be downloaded from the web. Due to privacy concerns  I would never want to put my accounts in the public/semi public domain and so they are not stored in the cloud.

Lets look at another example. I have a bunch of photos all named by the person, location and date taken.  eg. person_venice_date_taken.jpg. These photos could be private or the person in the photo may of asked me not to share these photos to any website. I could of downloaded the photo storage program from the web by searching for the program name.  Now Google knows that I may have this program and that’s fine. My friend comes over and wants to look at the photos with me.  I use Unity and start typing person_name_venice_date_taken.jpg.  Now I’ve just sent this string to Amazon and they return advertisements of Venice holidays, camera products and so forth. I’ve just broken my friends privacy requirements as I’ve just sent the name of the photo to Amazon.

The next point I would like to make is around its use.  People search on the web for things they don’t have or need the answer for. How many times have you typed the following into Google ‘<product name> review’ or ‘what does <name of subject> mean’. When was the last time you searched your computer using similar  terms? In fact people search their computers for things they do have. I use Unity to search for videos or music that I have stored on one of my hard drives.

If I searched for ‘<film name>’ in Unity then I would get my .mkv file plus a load of adverts trying to sell me the DVD. Why, what’s the point I already have the mkv file!

My next gripe is how Canonical is implementing it.

  • Canonical first released this without SSL which means your searches were not encrypted…. WAIT WHAT! Surely that must of been on the top of the things to do list
  • It’s turned on by default – Its opt out only. – How many people just run their computers without changing the default settings.
  • Its not mentioned during a fresh install or clearly mentioned during upgrade

In short I think this is a bad move but lets get some perspective.  Linux is the most configurable operating system on the planet.  If you don’t like it then turn it off or load another spin of Debian or choose to completely  new Linux distribution.

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Peter Fisher is a web developer working in Gloucester UK. Founder of the digital agency Websomatic, author of this blog and the HowToCodeWell Youtube channel. Peter has over ten years of web development experience under his belt

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