Spycatcher: Countering Amazon’s Review Policy

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Guest Blogger: Christoph Fischer

Recently Amazon has come under criticism over alleged electronic spying. It seems to analyse account and mouse activity and determines (with results that are heavily disputed) who your ‘friends’ are. Many authors found their reviews decimated and reviewers lost their reviewing privileges.

Amazon has refused to disclose how it determines these friendships and so subsequently there has been a lot of speculation in the author and reviewing community why this had happened: Did author and reviewer follow each other on twitter/ Amazon/ Goodreads / Facebook? Were verified reviews i.e. for books purchased on Amazon safe?

The answer is: There is no consistent evidence to suggest any of those theories beyond reasonable doubt.

Electronic spying is far more common than you may think and it is used continuously parallel to our web browsing.

For example if you look at train times, the website will have hidden connections to other sites or companies who collect and analyse the traffic to the first website. These invisible strangers will have access to your computer.

Companies like Amazon or Facebook pay to get access to that data and then influence what kind of marketing materials they send to you, which adverts to put on your Facebook page, which recommendations to put on your Amazon home page etc.

When I bought a treadmill last year and did some research for it, Amazon and FB suddenly recommended fitness equipment to me, left right and centre.

You can add one the following free add-ons to your chrome browser from the chrome add-on store to stop this.

 No. 1: ghostery

This software tells you how many ‘trackers’, counters and advertisers are looking at your activity and then lets you switch them off to get some well deserved privacy. You can allow or deny individual companies access for each webpage you open after you have installed ghostery, or you can by default switch off all of them. You get the option on all opened webpages to deny access to the companies that were granted access. After a few web pages you’ll have covered 95% of them.  Your web traffic will also be reduced by as much as 15% and consequently your entire internet bandwidth is returned to you. Facebook may be a problem so that you have to whitelist it – a snazzy term that means you allow third party access.

No. 2: disconnect and disconnect search

Named one of the 100 best innovations of the year by Popular Science and one of the 20 best Chrome extensions by Lifehacker,  it lets you visualize and block the otherwise invisible websites that tracks your search and browsing history. Once set up, they do their own thing and require little interaction.

No. 3: adblock / adblock pro  and ublock

Again they do they own thing and no interaction is really required after loading. You will notice how much faster your browsing is too once the spying stops. I’m usually against ad-blocking because it shuts of revenue to some free websites, such as The Guardian, who kindly asks you to support them in other ways instead. But the number of ads that get blocked in an average surfing session by adblock/adblock pro is astonishing. These great little add-ons are free but are written by glorious ‘geeks’ who ask you voluntarily to donate as they are trying to earn a living from it: for the price of a cup of coffee it’s got to be worth it.

No. 4: tor browser

This is a free tool that will not allow outsiders access to your IP address, which means they cannot determine where in the world you are and which computer you are using. Amazon used IP addresses when it deleted ‘duplicate’ reviews, i.e. when a husband and wife both had the audacity to review the same product, they were taken down. Using a tor browser instead of chrome can be a little tedious at first. When you log in Amazon will ask you extra security questions, use a caption and will state that something is unusual etc. They are genuinely trying to protect your account from hacking but they also clearly don’t like us using those tor browsers by repeatingly making it a little harder to log in.


About the Author

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Christoph Fischer was born in Germany, near the Austrian border, as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. Not a full local in the eyes and ears of his peers he developed an ambiguous sense of belonging and home in Bavaria. He moved to Hamburg in pursuit of his studies and to lead a life of literary indulgence. After a few years he moved on to the UK where he now lives in a small town in West Wales. Christoph worked for the British Film Institute, in Libraries, Museums and for an airline.  His medical thriller The Healer was released in January 2015, his latest historical novel, In Search of a Revolution in March 2015 and his latest thriller The Gamblers in June 2015. You can learn more about the author and his books at Christoph Fischer Books

 

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