Archive for November, 2006

moveon.org’s privacy violations

November 29th, 2006

One of the great privacy features now activated by default in Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client (which I thoroughly recommend) is that it blocks loading of remote images in emails. This is a good thing. Why? Well, spammers, fraudsters, and unscrupulous companies mass emailing their customers just love to know for sure whether or not their emails have been read.

One way they can do this is using a tiny image know as a “web bug“. By quietly loading a one-pixel transparent image in the bottom of an email, via a specially crafted URL with a unique identifier, the sender of the email can, with no permission from the recipient, verify that the email has been read, that the email address is valid (this is really bad news if it’s spam, since valid email addresses are valuable and will be sold and spammed even more). It is also possible for the sender to track when the message was read, and where the recipient was at the time they read it, by recording the IP address of the computer the recipient was using at the time.

I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing the alert Thunderbird pops up to tell me that it has blocked remote images to protect my privacy. After all, quite a few companies legitimately add remote images with no tracking capability to emails – for example their logo. So, when clearing through a few unread messages from earlier in the week, I almost didn’t give this a second thought…

Screenshot of the Thunderbird email client blocking a webbug tracking image in an email from moveon.org

But for some reason I thought “that’s odd” and so I had a look at the html source of the message. To my surprise, this is what I found three lines from the bottom:

<img src="http://open.moveon.org/o.gif?id=9508-1945452-_97SI0eV1lc9R" HEIGHT="1" WIDTH="1">

That’s right, it’s a web bug. (I removed the end of the tracking code.)

The irony of moveon.org – which do some great work – campaigning to “stop AOL’s email tax“, and “save the internet” whilst at the same time using the exact same invasive methods of email tracking as spammers and fraudsters would be laughable, if it wasn’t so sad. Having worked on numerous campaigns and digital organising projects myself, I find the use of email tracking by a progressive campaign quite a despicable abuse of privacy.

If you’re reading this, Eli, I suggest you first of all apologise directly to the 3 million or so members whose trust you have violated, destroy any tracking data you are storing, and most importantly don’t do it again.

The Denial Machine

November 20th, 2006

Did you know that big oil companies throughout the USA and Canada employ the same Public Relations firms that were used by the Tobacco lobby in the ’60s to deny the link between smoking and Cancer? Did you realise that the Bush White House has been systematically suppressing reports on the science of climate change, and using executive power to edit language written by scientists, to create the illusion of uncertainty where there is none? Canadians, did you realise just how deep the links between the denial machine in the USA, big oil south of the border, and Stephen Harper’s government really go?

It’s not often that I am truly impressed by a piece of main-stream investigative journalism, but this documentary from the CBC’s hard-hitting Fifth Estate series is clear, well presented, and damning in the evidence it presents. Please, watch it, and get your friends to watch it too.

(Running time: 41 Minutes. Watch on Google Video.)



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