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“This Ad Has Been Matched To Your Interests …” Pt. 1

Part 1. (Is there more here than meets the eye?)

The multi-billion dollar ‘consumer card trading’ industry

Imagine a thriving sports betting culture that trades souvenir cards listing players’ statistics along with colorful anecdotes and trivia about the players as its hottest commodity. Bettors and brokers could buy, sell or trade the cards to formulate their odds playing and betting strategies. Now substitute “ecommerce” for sports betting and consumers for players. The strategic bettors in this real life arena are large and small online marketers. The brokers are advertising service provider companies in a little known but highly profitable market sector; compiling, selling and trading consumer cards (portraying us, the shopping public) to design high-tech targeted advertising strategies.

A previous article here asked “Are free apps and services truly free?” Spoiler alert: the short answer was no. The 3 main monetizing approaches in widespread use on the modern web guarantee that. Here we will take a closer look at the most mysterious of the 3 major funding approaches underlying widely distributed free apps and online services.

More hidden than optional add-ons that hitchhike in when we are installing or updating free software, even more so than the often difficult to find and interpret TOS, PA and EULA agreements we routinely and blindly opt into; to its corporate consumers, the “consumer cards” commodity referenced in our earlier analogy is the high priced pinnacle, the Holy Grail of digital capital. We are examining an internet phenomenon know as interest based or behaviorally targeted advertising. More precisely, our main subject is the fuel that drives that vehicle, big data brokering.

The subtitle of this article offers a good reference point for some introductory facts about the leading data brokerage and advertising services company, Acxiom. Acxiom’s annual report for the past fiscal year cites just over $1 billion USD in earnings across 2 lines of business; 80% of which was from their marketing and data services line. Estimates of the number of Acxiom’s direct competitors run into the thousands, but published statistics on this sector are rare.

So relatively little was publicly known that the Federal Trade Commission recently spent 17 months completing an investigative report announced in this press release last year. A separate list of 300 of these companies begins here, courtesy of the Direct Marketers Association. The largest list I located was the 450 companies on Inc.’s list (NOTE: to use this list, first set the view to 200 per page, then click on Industry, to sort for Advertising & Marketing). Note that the list covers American companies only. We can safely assume there are 100s more such companies active worldwide.

Two US data brokerage companies that “graduated” from the field are Alexa and DoubleClick, now owned by Amazon and Google, respectively. These 2 companies are important historically, since they were founded in 1996 and 1997. The World Wide Web, as we know it today grew from several hundred to the first 2,400 websites during 1994. The data brokers began arriving when the earliest major sites, like Yahoo.com (1995) were barely 2 years old.

Much of what the brokers do and what they sell is accomplished using small collections of individualized data written on a few lines of text, called tracking cookies.

The cookies are stored on your hard drive by your web browser when you visit any site and they can help store, update, transmit and cross reference data about your use of the website; sites you visited before and after, where you are located geographically, your buying habits and more.

This AC logo is a logo to look for and click through to access some disclosures about how certain ads specifically target you. It appeared like thisblu AdChoices during my recent visit visit to a popular news website and clicking through it showed me the following from AdChoices.

“This ad has been matched to your interests. It was selected for you based on your browsing activity. This Advertiser used Google’s DoubleClick ad serving and targeting platform to determine that you might be interested in an ad like this.”

The popup also included links for learning more and for opting out of DoubleClick’s ad targeting.

adse2A different subscriber to Google AdSense, Criteo’s banner ad contained this on behalf of Staples. Clicking through the blue logo led me to the following:

“Why am I being shown this banner? These are the last products that you viewed on Staples’s website: People who looked at these products often ended up choosing the following products …”

So counting MSN, who sold space for this second ad, Google AdSense, which provides a sophisticated delivery method and Criteo, who included those two in an ad campaign they developed for Staples; this was a 4 party effort to guide me into a follow up purchase based on my (perceived) web viewing habits. This concerted background effort to drive sales by exploiting our personal data has been part of the World Wide Web’s DNA almost since the first major website debuted.

There is a lot more here than meets the eye. Consider how Google’s market dominance emboldened them to offer us some transparency into the workings of their deals. Google AdSense subscriber Criteo is a 10 year old French company and their former competitor DoubleClick (founded 1996) is a US company as old as the web but was purchased by Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion. That diverse little cluster of 4 known data marketers only hints at the range and scope of high-revenue subscribers to less transparent platforms than AdSense; inhabiting lists like the ones I linked above. Understanding the diverse, hidden and unruly nature of the data brokering market sector helps explain why the FTC investigated. [continued in Pt. 2]

Disconnect

Web Browser Basics, posted earlier here, mentioned my favorite privacy add on, Disconnect. Disconnect is the web browser extension that blocks hidden advertisers, data harvesters, and researchers’ ride along connections at every web page you visit. Another PC Topics post, Are Free Apps And Services Truly Free? mentions why the hidden stalkers are there accompanying most of our web surfing. This current post will serve as my formal introduction and recommendation of Disconnect, with an added bit of how to for anyone interested.

Before we get into the details I want to ask “Why a privacy add on?” When I first wrote about the subject of Big Data, the question of whether big data was all that bad came up . You can easily form your own opinions about how tolerant you wish to be against the flood of advertising and hidden research crowding the screens of free web services like Google search and Yahoo Mail or how often you are interested in being re-marketed the same exact item you bought recently. Look to the near future and you may be greeted in the shopping mall by a custom hologram chirping “How does assorted tank tops sound for you?” as Tom Cruise was in the movie Minority Report.
Custom Ad

Those aspects of Big Advertising Data are annoyances at worst, but the darker side of the equation is what happens when any of the high grade corporate surveillance data that began life as an advertising advantage falls into the wrong hands (meaning anyone who would misappropriate or misuse that data.)

A good privacy add on like the Disconnect browser extension can speed up your web browsing, greatly reduce screen clutter and begin sending a message that you are not always okay with hidden stalkers note taking at all of your web destinations. It also protects against slippery slope mishaps where aggressive marketers take over (hijacking) your search and home page web browser settings; chumming all your web sessions into a murky shark pool of their hungry affiliates.

Disconnect here refers to the browser extension add on. It is available through the settings menu that appears as 3 parallel lines just below the red “x” in the upper right corner of the Chrome and Firefox web browsers. As of this writing there is no Internet Explorer version for this add on.

In Chrome you can click Settings, (then on the left margin) Extensions /Get more extensions, then Search the store for Disconnect. When you see the green-goggled robot with 1 arm pointing,
Privacy Add On

click +ADD TO CHROME and the app does the rest.

After installing Disconnect, the Disconnect D logo should occupy the upper right of your browser window. The first change you may notice will be a green counter that reports on the hidden connections covered by Disconnect; depending on what home page is set in your browser.

Here is an example of Disconnect at work above a financial news article I visited from a popular home page. Counter at 61The green counter refers to hidden web connections in several categories that were noticed, identified and handled by Disconnect; resulting in the benefits I listed in the block quote above. Clicking on the D logo reveals the following details about those hidden connections.

discon3First let us note that every category showing forest green color is actively blocked by Disconnect.  The 3 social network buttons on the upper row show that even though I do not have an account and /or am not logged on to their social networks during this browser session, Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter joined in on my financial research here (or would have, absent Disconnect.)

The vertical column of buttons shows that 23 Advertisers see anyone who visits this page as a prime prospect for targeted ads (unless, as in this case , they are blocked by Disconnect.) Ditto the 5 Analytics companies (Market Research scorekeepers). The 29 Content requests shown here with a gray icon are unfiltered by Disconnect, so that no gaps are created in the main body of the page. Disconnect excels at making these distinctions  and I have never seen it damage a page’s contents.

Each of the 7 buttons in the popup is reversible by single clicking.  If, for example, you were using your free Yahoo Mail and chose to let Yahoo fulfill its commitment to their advertisers at your expense unimpeded; you could click on the Advertising button so it goes gray and unfiltered like Content (more permissive) . Alternatively, you could use the lower link to Whitelist site (the most permissive setting, all icons go gray) or you could maintain the default balance of green and gray (after all, opting out of targeted ads is data too!)

The link at the right of Whitelist site helps emphasize how Disconnect responds to the hidden participants at each web page you visit. Click on Visualize page for a view like the one from our sample session below.

The graphic, available only in Chrome, illustrates how my visit to the financial markets article linked from the popular home page became a magnet for hidden participants with questions about me like “What’s his age? race? gender? income level? education?”, etcetera; and “Where’d he click from? Where’ll he click to next, How long does he stay here? What’s his IP address?” and more, like “Does he spend on this?”
dvizualize

The list goes on, and by the time the data set is harvested, the subject could only be me, or so it seems. Big Data doesn’t always get that detail right, nor does it need to for profitability.

Where Big Data is involved, extraordinary amounts of money, robust global competition, distorted ethics, lack of transparency and poorly regulated government involvement have spawned social and legal impact issues of privacy, censorship, consumer protection, abuse of civil authority, data creep, white collar crime and worse.

Personally, I don’t always apply a privacy add on. I use 3 different PC web browsers, each with varying degrees of protection, and direct my web traffic accordingly when I choose to. I enjoy the performance boost Disconnect brings to Firefox and Chrome and the less cluttered Internet experience Disconnect produces for me. Those alone are reason enough for me donate when asked, for this well crafted app. We can all benefit by learning more about and participating in responsible solutions to the social impact issues that motivated Disconnect’s founders.

Software Updates

There are a few different ways you may have noticed Microsoft Windows Update’s activity on your PC (unexpected reboots, updates are ready” and “configuring Windows …” prompts, to name a few). Often other software companies like Adobe (Flash, Acrobat PDF Reader), Oracle (Java), and manufacturers of computer hardware products you own will generate prompts in the notification area (the lower right corner of your Windows 7 and earlier screens, or on the upper right in Windows 8.1). Another approach is when apps generate update prompts as the software program is launched (QuickBooks, AOL Desktop).

Why do many PC users distrust and prefer postponing or ignoring these updates? Most are understandably doubtful over the purpose of the updates and concerned over possible system problems requiring tech support.

Those concerns might be based on a previous bad experience with a system update. Software leaders like Microsoft perform rigorous large scale compatibility testing before releasing any updates to their products in the field. Still, a product like Windows is so complex and so widely used, it is impossible even for Microsoft to anticipate or pre-test every possible scenario an update might be deployed in. This opens a statistically small but largely inconvenient risk of unintended negative consequences to installing the update. Is it worth the risk? The short answer is “yes!” More on that later.

Before weighing the risks and benefits of Microsoft Windows updates let’s consider the 3rd party types of updates mentioned earlier. Other software companies’ updates have rigorous, large scale pre-testing like Microsoft’s but they are much more likely to include questionable 4th and 5th party offerings that can needlessly undermine your computing experience. Consider the following example: (click to zoom, [Bkspc] to return)

J... Update
Figure 1 (fictitious names are for example only)

This is by far not the only example of a major software company whose product may have been pre-loaded on your system and who has chosen to include a (pre-selected!) offer from one or more affiliates.

XYZ is the affiliate named in this illustration. I will save my discussion about XYZ’s role and participation here for a separate article, but the short answer to whether the update is worth any potential risks is still emphatically “yes!” That said …,

it is our own responsibility to read the popup screens and assess any pre-entered check marks before clicking Next.

All of the principal types of updates referred to here are critical to your successful continued use of the major products that prompt them. The principal parties here are you (the 1st party) Microsoft (the 2nd party on all Windows PCs) and any 3rd party vendors of products like the fictitious (and PC manufacturer pre-installed) Jojoba software in Figure1, or this year’s tax prep software or your chosen printer or webcam hardware. The reason their updates are critically important is the same as with scheduled maintenance and warranty service to your automobile.

The updates’ purpose is to strengthen weaker points in the product, to prevent and correct potential damage and to replace defective parts. The benefits are in continued usability, security and reliability. PC hardware and software updates can also carry an added benefit of delivering useful new features and functions.

What about when things go wrong? Is it still worth it then? The answer remains that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Microsoft is highly adept and responsive on those rare occasions when a Windows update triggers unforeseen problems. Windows has built in System Restore and Uninstall features that can reverse undesirable software changes defensively. Microsoft also distributes targeted hotfixes and patches to separately remedy update mishaps. The same approaches can also apply to correcting 3rd party software problems. Leading software and component companies are also ready, willing and able to correct unforeseen blunders that occasionally accompany their updates, often with a follow up corrective update.

As long as we are we are willing to read their popup screens and participate in any decisions offered, updates prompted by the major providers of system software and hardware are a convenient way to help preserve, optimize and continue enjoying your computing experience.

Are Free Apps And Services Truly Free?*

*Definition: … not under the control of another.

If all the software apps and services were removed from your computer the machine would seem oddly forbidding until further action is taken; just like a clean dry glass served for your favorite drink before it gets poured. Given time, you might study the empty glass’ contours or absentmindedly caress it while waiting for service. Strictly speaking , without free apps and services; or any software at all, your computer’s firmware would only allow you to turn on the machine, explore its setup program via the [F1], [F2], [F10] [Del] or [Esc] keys or view the Operating system (OS) not found” prompt.

On roughly 90% of computers today that “(OS) not found” prompt refers to Microsoft Windows. This shows how the OS is the most important piece of software you own. The cost of Windows operating system software accounts for roughly 20% of the cost of a custom built PC, so Windows is by definition not free as long as Microsoft sets a price for its user license.

Restore the Windows operating system to your PC and you can again boot to its familiar Windows Desktop. One of the few tasks available there will be using Internet Explorer, because it is included by Microsoft (in all recent Windows versions). If you are looking for Word, Excel or Outlook, remember they were removed and each carries a price tag for its user license. At least there are free services you can use online  like Google Search, Gmail, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube and others but how free are they?

Using the definition from our subtitle we might interpret “control” as the building and maintaining of those services. The task is even more demanding and costly than it sounds. The effort and expense involved is met by service providers in different ways; including some deriving from our participation in and use of the services, even though we are do not pay cash in return.

Other controls are applied through written agreements called Terms of Service (TOS), Privacy and End User License agreements (PA, EULA). These are less evident than the large scale and powerful online services they protect, but every such service has them. These written agreements outline our participation in the provider controlled services using contractual terms like “Rights and Limitations.” In other words they detail where our privilege and authority with the services ends and the provider’s begins.

Since operational, financial, licensing and usage controls rest almost entirely with the providers the services are not materially free in the way our definition states. Google is said to be supporting about 12 billion search requests monthly. That averages close to 400 million daily. That translates to major computing resources and enormous utility bills among a long list of accompanying expenses. The amount of “free” online documentation and support resources Microsoft distributes has a similar scale. How then are the financial burdens of providing these services met?

Different providers use different combinations of economic solutions for the expense of offering large scale online services at no charge. Their approaches are constantly evolving and there is constant experimentation to determine what methods are successful. Wikipedia, like public radio and TV stations, relies heavily on contributions solicited by its fund drives. Microsoft has an extremely diverse catalog of products and services; giving them the opportunity to have some of their paid offerings partly fund the “free” ones.

Whether it is an internet leader like Microsoft, Google or Amazon, or a single lone entrepreneur; anyone posting even one web page on the internet can try offsetting the cost of that page by including paid space for advertisers to lease and promote outside interests on that page .

Understanding that our entire computing experience is based on software and online services enabling us to interact digitally, and the high stakes economy of scale that online software and services are delivered in gives us some idea of the basis for exchange of how we receive the “free” software and online services.

Simply put, that basis for exchange is a give and take transaction. We recognize what we are taking when we use software and services to enliven our online experience but how can we assess what we are actually giving? Part of that answer is in the frequently dense, wordy and obscure TOS, PA and EULA documents mentioned earlier. Another part is often hidden in plain sight on screen.

Often the largest and by far the most hidden funding scheme is the back channel commodity trading in big data using us as its subject that software companies and service providers exchange with their affiliates.

Considering the rights and restrictions in those lawyerly software agreements; the 3rd party triggers on screen that defy our attention when we are downloading, installing or updating software and the multi-billion dollar shadow world of big advertising data; the short answer to our opening question must be a resounding “No!” Other postings in this space will examine those three monetizing approaches in greater detail. Until then, the next time you visit a free online service or use a free app, you may think back on that empty drinking glass a moment and then “pick your poison!”

Web Browser Basics

Definition: A software program that pulls in web pages on demand.

It is not unusual to find all three major web browsers installed on computers I service. Windows computers come pre-loaded with Microsoft’s Internet Explorermsie. Alternatives like Google Chrome gchrom and Mozilla Firefox ffox are popular and widely distributed. All 3 are free of charge. All 3 serve the same purpose; fetching web pages from remote servers across the internet onto our local screens. All 3 have their relative strengths and weaknesses. I have experienced faster downloading of files in Firefox than in Internet Explorer and smoother video resolution in Chrome than in Firefox. Compatibility with Disconnect, a favorite online privacy app, leads me to recommend Chrome and Firefox over Internet Explorer.

If you understand the differences, there is no harm in keeping and using multiple web browsers for preferred uses. If you are not technically inclined or have not bothered to learn some of the settings each browser uses to control security, privacy and performance it is better to choose only one and either ignore (as with Internet Explorer) or uninstall the others. Internet Explorer comes with Windows and should not be uninstalled. Non-Microsoft browsers like Chrome and Firefox should be uninstalled if you don’t actively use them.

Which browser(s) should you choose? All three browsers we are discussing here are useful, highly developed software programs with industry leading product teams behind them. My experience as a support technician has led me away from favoring one web browser choice as being unequivocally superior to the others. Performance comparisons like the ones I made earlier are often followed by the advice that “your mileage may vary”, which applies here too. Video streaming and file downloading performance depend partly on hardware components and internet connection quality that varies from computer to computer, so valid comparisons of web browser performance must be made within your own computing environment. My advice on privacy is based on my preference for the Disconnect add-on but there are other equally valid privacy solutions that might influence your browser choice differently.

Finally, why is any of this important? Your chosen web browser(s) are like a set of tires for riding the Information Superhighway, so how they are configured and used on your system is central to your internet security, privacy and ease of use. Considering that you use a web browser as frequently as you access the Internet from your computer and that none of these browsers has ideal security and privacy settings by default, your informed choice plays a major role in supporting a trouble free online experience.