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The fractured future of browser privacy

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The fractured future of browser privacy

In the 1990s, web browsers like Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer competed bitterly to offer the snazziest new features and attract users. Today, the browser landscape looks totally different. For one thing, Chrome now dominates, controlling around two-thirds of the market on both desktop and mobile. Even more radical, though, is the recent competitive focus on privacy, a welcome change for anyone who’s gotten sick of creepy ad tracking and data mismanagement. But as browsers increasingly diverge in their approaches, it’s clear that not all privacy protections are created equal.

At the USENIX Enigma security conference in San Francisco this week, developers, security researchers, and privacy advocates presented differing views of how browsers should protect their users against data abuses. In a panel discussion that included representatives from Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Brave, all participants agreed that collaboration across the industry has driven innovation and helped make privacy a priority. But some browsers are taking a hardline approach, while others prefer to increase protections within the status quo.

“I think competition pushes everyone toward being more private by default,” Yan Zhu, chief information security officer of the Brave browser, said during the panel. “For instance, when Brave sees Safari rolling out a new protection we think ‘Oh, we should at least try to match that,’ because as a privacy-first, privacy-focused browser that is one of our main selling points.”

Browsers can take a number of steps to thwart the tracking efforts of websites and ad networks. They can add anti-fingerprinting measures, which make it harder for sites and services to connect your browsing to you based on unique characteristics—a “fingerprint”—of your browser and device. They can block trackers embedded in sites. They can take extra steps to encrypt information about what websites you visit. And they can support third-party extensions that allow users to further adapt and customize their privacy protections.

Another longstanding topic of debate is how to handle third-party website “cookies” that browsers store to customize your web experience, but that sites often also use for tracking. Safari, Firefox, and Brave have all decided to block third-party cookies by default—much to advertisers’ chagrin. Google announced earlier this month that it will eventually take this step as well, though not for two years. As a major ad distributor itself, Google also stands to benefit from blocking third-party trackers that other browsers don’t.

Almost all mainstream browsers take these privacy-friendly steps in some form, but under different conceptual approaches. A lot of the debate hinges on the question of how far to push screening and blocking, given that these protections can sometimes create collateral damage. Privacy defenses can sometimes break legitimate website functionality; comments that load from a third-party hosting service, for example, could be mistaken for a sketchy targeted ad module. So each browser has to weigh how it prioritizes privacy versus ease of use.

“Firefox, Edge, Brave, and Safari all have anti-tracking protections by default, and they all vary a little bit, they all have different tradeoffs,” Tanvi Vyas, Mozilla’s principal engineer, said during the panel. “But in the end we’re all trying to improve those protections and we’re learning from each other on how to do that. I think we [Firefox] differ from Chrome in that we’re not trying to preserve the existing model. For us our highest priority is privacy, so when we choose between the existing model and privacy we’ll always choose privacy.”

Broadly speaking, advertisers don’t actually need your data. All that they really want is to monetize efficiently

That existing model allows companies and advertisers at least some access to marketing data; one argument for preserving it is that if browsers become too restrictive, those parties will pull content from the open web and move it to mobile apps instead.

“The web doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People who are building sites and services have choices about the platforms they target,” says Eric Lawrence, an Edge program manager. “They can build a mobile application, they can take their content off the open web to put it into a walled garden. And so if we do things in privacy that hurt the open web, we could end up pushing people to less privacy-preserving ecosystems.”

Justin Schuh, Chrome’s director of engineering, says Google is already seeing this migration toward apps and other closed platforms. He argues that while there’s nothing wrong with this evolution in theory, it shouldn’t come at the web’s expense. So Chrome has been working on a set of open standards, collectively known as the Privacy Sandbox, that aims to find a middle ground on privacy protections to keep advertisers in the fold.

“Broadly speaking, advertisers don’t actually need your data. All that they really want is to monetize efficiently,” Schuh said during the Enigma panel. “So what we’re proposing here is we can just give them the tools to do that without actually building user profiles and tracking them.” With the Privacy Sandbox, Google plans to propose standards that would anonymously aggregate ad data for marketers and put more of the processing of ad targeting on users’ own devices.

Chrome has been adamant that this proposal is about strengthening the open web; if content moves to closed-off apps, users won’t benefit from the transparency and protections technologists have worked so hard to develop and standardize for everyone online. But it’s hard to ignore that Google, which runs one of the largest online ad networks in the world, also has a clear economic interest in safeguarding that industry.

Critics of that approach argue that adding a layer of privacy to the status quo doesn’t resolve the fundamental issues that make digital marketing so invasive. It’s a hard enough problem to solve even with the best intentions, as efforts to reduce tracking and fingerprinting can actually have the opposite effect. For example, Apple has been working to solve issues with Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention that could allow someone to use the feature’s blocking patterns themselves to identify and track users. Researchers continue to find flaws in the company’s fixes.

“The public attention on how we are tracked every day, and the efforts in several regions of the world, seem to have put more pressure on browsers to do right by their users and make privacy the default,” says Andrés Arrieta, director of consumer privacy engineering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who also presented browser privacy research at USENIX Enigma. “But they don’t do it the same way and it doesn’t have the same effect. Some tout themselves as doing much for their users, but in reality aren’t, and in some cases are doing even worse, like standardizing other ways of tracking users, removing user control, and making tracking the default.”

Disagreements over the best approach to web privacy issues have gotten so heated that some players have opted to keep a low profile. Microsoft Edge, for example, is looking to shed the baggage of poor choices Internet Explorer made in the early 2000s, and rebrand as a trustworthy but neutral option.

“One of the things that thus far we’ve tried to do in Edge is be a little more quiet about it,” Edge’s Lawrence says. “We don’t really show off the privacy features at the top level, there’s not a lot of communicators saying, ‘Hey, we’re protecting you in this way or that way.'”

Edge is now built on Google’s open source Chromium software, but it still uses Microsoft-developed features in place of anything that would involve Google as a third party. This way Edge users don’t have to trust a second ubiquitous tech giant and risk more ad networks feasting on their data just to use Microsoft’s browser. For example, Edge uses a feature called Microsoft Defender SmartScreen in place of Google’s Safe Browsing. Edge also offers a feature called Tracking Prevention, Microsoft’s take on a tracker blocker that users can adjust to be more or less strict depending on their tolerance for false positives.

The showdown is clearly just beginning over the best path for browsers to take. But it’s refreshing, at least, for these platforms to finally be debating user protections and competing to offer the strongest defenses. The question is still whether they can get it right.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.



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Biggest technology acquisitions 2020 | Computerworld

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Last year marked a slight decrease in global technology M&A activity from the blockbuster year that was 2018 – when SAP bought Qualtrics for $8 billion, IBM acquired Red Hat for a staggering $33 billion and Broadcom picked up CA Technologies for $18.9 billion in cash.

As of the end of Q3 2019, technology M&A deals worth $245 billion had been announced globally, marking a decrease of 25% year-on-year according to GlobalData.

Which mergers and acquisitions does 2020 have in store? If January alone is anything to go by then there will be no slowing of major deals across the industry, with security already proving to be a hot area.

Here are the biggest technology acqusitions of 2020 so far, in reverse chronological order:

March 26: Microsoft to acquire Affirmed Networks

Microsoft announced that it is acquiring the Boston-based Affirmed Networks for an undisclosed amount in March. The 2010-founded company specialises in virtualisation and cloud-based mobile network technology, which makes it an attractive acquisition target for any company investing in next-generation 5G connectivity.

“This acquisition will allow us to evolve our work with the telecommunications industry, building on our secure and trusted cloud platform for operators. With Affirmed Networks, we will be able to offer new and innovative solutions tailored to the unique needs of operators, including managing their network workloads in the cloud,” Yousef Khalidi, corporate vice president of Azure Networking wrote in a blog post.

The terms of this deal were not announced but Affirmed was most recently valued at north of $1.3 billion following a $38 million funding round in 2019.

March 2: BMC Software to acquire Compuware

Enterprise software stalwart BMC agreed to buy Compuware in March for an undisclosed amount, marking its third purchase of a mainframe specialist in just over a year.



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The Best Rechargeable AA Batteries of 2020

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The Best Rechargeable

Credit: Richard Baguley / Reviewed

Energizer Universal Rechargeable batteries offer the best balance of power and price that we could find.

The Best Rechargeable

Credit: Richard Baguley / Reviewed

AmazonsBasics’ AA rechargeable batteries are a great low-cost option.

How We Tested

battery-charger

Credit: Reviewed / Seamus Bellamy

All batteries were completely charged before testing began.

The Tester

I’m Richard Baguley, and I have been testing and breaking technology for over 20 years. In that time I have tested everything from automatic coffee makers to wearable computers. Until 2012, I was the VP of Editorial Development at Reviewed.com, where I created the testing protocols that are still used for products such as TVs, dishwashers, coffee makers and refrigerators.

The Tests

The most important things about rechargeable batteries are how much charge they can hold and how quickly they can deliver it.

So, we tested them by doing just that, using two high-end rechargeable battery chargers (a La Crosse BC700-CBP and a SkyRC MC3000) to measure the amount of charge that each of the batteries could hold, testing four of each and averaging the result. We tested AA batteries as these are the most commonly used size for modern electronics such as TV remotes, as well as some smart doorbells and outdoor security cameras.

To see how long the batteries in our test group would last, we used them to run two devices: a small battery-powered fan and a powerful flashlight. Drawing 0.6 and 1.4 Amps, respectively, these devices allowed us to measure how long each battery can run during low-drain and high-drain use. For these tests, we ran our fan at maximum speed, recording how long it kept rotating. Our flashlight was operated at maximum brightness—roughly 350 lumens—as we recorded how long it stayed lit.

fans-for-testing

Credit: Reviewed / Seamus Bellamy

To calculate how long the batteries would last, fans were left running until each battery died.

When the blades stopped turning, the time was noted and the test was stopped. In instances where I had to step away from observing the test, I set up a GoPro camera to record the operation of the fans, just in case one stopped running before I got back.

What You Should Know About Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries are pretty simple devices, but there is a lot of jargon surrounding them. Here’s our guide to the things you need to know to make an informed choice.

  • NiMH: Nickel Metal Hydride. The chemistry inside the battery that stores the electrical charge. One side of the battery is made of Nickel Oxide Hydroxide, and the other is made of an alloy of several rare earth metals. When the battery is charged, the Nickel Oxide Hydroxide gives up a Hydrogen ion, which is absorbed by the alloy. When the battery is used, this is reversed, creating a flow of electric charge out of the battery.
  • Charger: the device that controls the flow of charge into a battery. You should never use a NiMH battery (like the ones in this guide) with a non-NiMH charger, as this can damage them.
  • LSD: Low Self Discharge. All batteries lose a certain amount of charge over time, even when they are not connected to anything. This is called self-discharge. Typically, a NiMH battery will lose up to half its charge if stored for a year. Some batteries minimize this by adding extra insulation inside the battery.
  • mAh: milliamp-hours. A measure of the amount of charge that can be stored in a battery. 1 mAh is a flow of one milliamp over an hour, so a 2500 mAh battery can deliver 2500 milliamps (or 2.5 Amps) for one hour, or 250 milliamps for 10 hours.
  • Cycles or Recharge Life: Each full charge and discharge is one battery cycle. All batteries lose capacity when used, meaning that they can store a little less charge with each cycle. Manufacturers offer a cycle life, a number of cycles that the battery can go through before it loses a certain amount of its capacity. This is defined in a standard called IEC 61951-2.
  • Other Sizes and Adapters: We focused on rechargeable AA batteries for this guide as they are, by far, the most commonly used battery size. They can also be used to power devices that require C- and D-size batteries, too. All you have to do is pop them into an appropriately-sized adapter and you’re in business. This adapter set from Eneloop is a great option for anyone interested in doing this.

Other Rechargeable AA Batteries We Tested

Checking our work.

We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.

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