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The Best Browser Privacy Tools (That Don’t Make Life More Difficult)

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In a year when social media giants and governments alike have made headlines for tracking users online without their consent, battening down the virtual hatches has become a vital part of Internet hygiene.

Blocking tracking technologies, however, also disables those handy auto-fill log-ins and web personalization features, preventing you from easily shopping online and making your web experience feel as if you’re back in 1999.

So we went in search of privacy tools that don’t impact your browsing experience. We tested browser tools ranging from the basic Private Mode on all browsers to full-featured ad blockers. We looked at the four most-used browsers in the United States: Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer. Here’s what we found to be most helpful for safeguarding your privacy and anonymity — and what measures of convenience you might have to give up if you use them.

The lowdown on cookies

Cookies are small text files that contain one or more bits of information about your computer, most commonly a user ID a website assigns you in order to keep track of your movements through the site. Cookies are often essential to using a site successfully, enabling you to check out from shopping sites or click around Facebook without having to repeatedly re-enter your password.

These first-party cookies come from the website you’re on and exist mostly to offer you a personalized web experience. Benefits include greeting you by name, giving you weather data relevant to your home location and keeping track of your achievements in a game.

It’s the third-party cookies from ads on the websites you visit that track you as you move between websites. Advertisers place these cookies in their advertisements, allowing them to follow your movements among the network of sites where they advertise.

Information about your surfing patterns goes toward compiling a profile of preferences and basic personal data — things like location, age and gender — that is used to create targeted advertising. If you’ve clicked on a lot of gardening sites, for example, targeted ad placements could even show you ads for tools or plants on non-gardening sites. If that bothers you, you can disable third-party cookies in your browser settings.

Browse in private mode

Seeing targeted advertising probably doesn’t bother most people if all they’re surfing for is news, cute cat pictures or a new iPhone. But for looking up information about something like health concerns, privacy mode allows you to browse without associating the search with your existing profile.

To open a private window in your browser:

  • Firefox: Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+P
  • Chrome: Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+N
  • Safari: Safari/Private Browsing
  • Internet Explorer: Ctrl/Cmd+Shift+P

This turns off your web history and enables the cookies necessary for the site to work but blocks third-party cookies. At the end of the session, all cookies are deleted.

The downside

Browsing in private mode does not stop the website from recording that you were there based on your IP address, which can still be tracked. And, crucially, private mode doesn’t stop social networks from tracking you. It’s best used for hiding activity on a shared computer rather than actually remaining invisible online.

Block third-party cookies

Third-party cookies aren’t the only way to track people around the Internet, but disabling them in your browser’s settings means advertisers can no longer store files on your browser to track your web surfing.

Here’s how to block third-party cookies, assuming you’re running the most recent versions of the browsers (a good idea from a security point of view):

  • Chrome: Preferences > Show Advanced Options (at the bottom) > Privacy > Content settings > Check “block third party cookies and site data.”
  • Internet Explorer: Tools > Internet Options > Privacy > Move the slider to the level of cookies you want blocked
  • Firefox: Preferences > Privacy > History > Select “Use custom settings for history,” then set “Accept third-party cookies” to Never.
  • Safari: Preferences > Privacy > Select to block cookies “from third parties and advertisers.”

The downside

Some websites require third-party cookies to work; for example, Microsoft asks you to accept cookies when downloading an update. In these cases, head into your browser settings and add the sites as exceptions.

Block the Flash super cookie

Sites may store Flash cookies on your computer regardless of whether you have allowed third-party cookies. Flash cookies can’t be easily deleted, and they may be downloaded to your computer from any website running Adobe Flash (such as sites with video or an interactive application). Designed to locally store your settings for the rich web apps that Flash enables, the capability for the Flash plug-in to allow other sites to store files in a user’s computer can also be hijacked by advertisers wanting a new way to track Internet users.

Flash cookies can identify you across different browsers on the same device and, in some cases, have been found to regenerate deleted browser cookies. Because they have far more storage (up to 100KB) than other cookies, they can contain more complex information about your habits. Like browser cookies, Flash cookies are used by websites to deliver a customized experience as well as give advertisers extra data.

Cookie cleaners and Flash player settings

Blocking Flash entirely could be an option with script-blockers such as NoScript (Firefox) or ScriptNo (Chrome). However, such plug-ins stop all Flash and Java on all pages, breaking the sites in many cases, until you can customize the settings so that trusted objects and pages can run freely. This can take a long time and represent a pain for the less technically minded.

If you use Firefox, you can download the BetterPrivacy, which automatically deletes Flash cookies as they crop up (as well as clearing cookies already there). You can also whitelist necessary Flash cookies, such as cookies used when playing a game.

If you’re not on Firefox, you’ll have to dig into your computer. First, disable future Flash cookies from being left on the machine. If you’re on a PC, open Control Panel and click on Flash player > Local Storage settings by site. You’ll find the default is “Allow All Websites to Store Data”; change it to “Block All Websites from Storing Data.” Then you can easily delete the Flash cookies by hitting the neighboring Delete All button, followed by “Delete All Site Data and Settings.”

If you’re on a Mac, change your Flash settings online at Macromedia by clicking on Global Storage Settings in the (pretty clunky) Flash-based settings manager. Uncheck the box for allowing third-party Flash content to store data on your computer. Then pull the slider for how much data third-party companies can store on your machine to None (far left).

Finally, to delete sites that have already left cookies on your computer, grab the free download CCleaner (Mac/PC), which deletes both Flash and browser cookies.

The downside

Sites including eBay use Flash cookies to verify your identity, so deleting them across the board can mean needing to re-enter passwords more frequently.

Dodge tracking you never signed up for

Microsoft recently announced it would not scan any of the content in its Outlook.com inboxes to use in targeted advertising, but Google makes no such promise with Gmail — quite the opposite.

As for the social networks, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn track users even after they’ve signed out — and even if you don’t click on a social media sharing button. The very act of landing on a page with a social-share button means it relays back to the social network. Sophos’ security blog has a straightforward account of how Twitter does it and how you can opt out. (Remember that opting out doesn’t stop ads or the collecting of information.)

In addition, Facebook uses an alternative to tracking cookies called a conversion pixel, which advertisers affix to their ads to see how many clicks they get. So a website doesn’t need a Facebook button to let Facebook know you’ve been there.

Anti-tracker plug-in Do Not Track Me (Chrome/Firefox/Safari/Internet Explorer) stops a website from sending information back to Facebook or Google unless you actually click one of the +1 or Like buttons. It also blocks other trackers and boasts a clean, intuitive interface for customizing blocking options. The Mask My Email and Make Me A Strong Password features help deter spam and hackers. When you’re signing up for a new account, masking your email address stops potentially dodgy sites from selling your real email address, while the password option creates a hard-to-guess password (that, crucially, isn’t the same as one you already use), then saves it in the plug-in’s encrypted password manager.

On the toolbar, clicking the Do Not Track Me icon shows how many trackers it has blocked — for me, 666 in under 24 hours.

Disconnect (Chrome/Firefox/Safari/Opera) is a similar plug-in that offers the additional benefit of dividing trackers into social, analytic and advertising categories. A graph shows the time and bandwidth saved by blocking trackers requesting information, and you get the option of adding trusted sites (and their cookies) to a whitelist.

The downside

There’s little downside to taking any of these anti-tracking measures. The only thing these scrappy little guys don’t do is block ads; you’ll still see them, but they won’t be targeted based on your previous clicks.

Kill most ads

Many companies (including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon) promise to honor opt-outs for “interest-based” advertising. But while opting out stops companies from delivering targeted ads based on what you’ve clicked on, it does not stop ads based on general information such as your location or other details you may have volunteered while signing up for the account. Crucially, it doesn’t stop companies tracking you and collecting your data.

To prevent ads from showing at all, thus thwarting the purpose of tracking via third-party cookies or other means, try a plug-in such as AdBlock Plus (for Chrome/Firefox/Safari/Internet Explorer), which blocks “annoying” ads: video ads, Facebook ads, pop-ups and the like. By default, a whitelist of ads that fall under the developer’s guidelines for acceptability is allowed, but you can change this setting to disable all ads.

You can also add different filters to block more or different types of ads. For example, the anti-social filter blocks social media buttons from transmitting back to the mother ship that you were there, neatly avoiding the all-seeing Facebook eye.

AdBlock Plus also blocks trackers and websites known to deliver malware.

The downside

Blocking ads deprives sites of revenue, and many websites rely on ad revenue to stay afloat. Unless you tinker with the settings for which ads should be allowed at different sites (a process that may take a long time to complete), you may end up depriving your favorite sites of those caching clicks.

Search securely

Two-thirds of U.S. search traffic is made through Google, distantly followed by Microsoft’s Bing (19%) and Yahoo (10%). While Google’s search algorithms turn up highly relevant results for most of us (in May, 31% of all Internet traffic came from Google, versus less than 2% for Bing and Yahoo combined), there’s an additional trade-off: Search results are also personalized based on what you’ve clicked on in the past.

That may not seem like such a big deal until you consider that Google also combines your search history with other information from your Google accounts, such as YouTube and Gmail, for use in targeted ad campaigns. Search histories can reveal highly personal information such as your interests, religion or health issues, substantially filling out the information already compiled from your YouTube clicks and Gmail messages.

Instead of switching to another Big Three search engine, try DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t log your searches so that all users get the same results. In our test, searches for subjects including current events (“Hong Kong protests”), general knowledge (“why is the sky blue”) and straightforward subjects (Halloween costumes), helpful links turned up in the first half of the page. However, when we typed the more ambiguous phrase “Tuscany fall cuisine,” only Google noted that we wanted autumnal food in Italy, not the town called Tuscany Falls.

DuckDuckGo also offers many of the same convenience features as Google, including a good range of “zero-click info.” For example, type “weather in California,” “650 USD in EUR” or any calculator function such as “square root of 60,” and the answer is displayed above a list of link results.

Similarly privacy-centric search providers include Ixquick, which doesn’t store your IP address or search data (and consequently doesn’t sell any of your information), delivering results based on what the five major search engines are saying. Two or more stars indicate multiple search engines have relayed the same result. However, Ixquick lacks the uber-convenient zero-click search.

Finally, the Disconnect anti-tracker plug-in also has a separate search extension that anonymizes your searches in any of the Big Three search engines as well as DuckDuckGo itself.

The downside

Auto-complete in Google Search has been a godsend when it comes to typing searches for news and factoids you can’t quite recall. Not having a search history also means not having those purpled-out links that indicate at a glance which sites you’ve previously visited (handy when you’ve forgotten to bookmark a great source).

The all-in-one option

Not up to fine-tuning settings, cherry-picking plug-ins and switching to a new search engine?

Get a whole new browser. The Epic Browser offers privacy mode as the default and only option. Epic doesn’t store web histories, search queries or cookies. Clicking on a plug icon in the URL bar turns on a proxy feature that anonymizes your computer by routing your traffic through a U.S.-based proxy network.

Epic also blocks trackers with a handy pop-up telling you exactly how many it’s blocked — and just to rub its success in competitors’ noses, it shows how many trackers exist on the other browsers you’re using. On my computer, Firefox had 143 data-collecting trackers (including Amazon, Experian, all the social networks and a ton of ad providers); Safari had 56 (including BuzzFeed, LinkedIn and Tumblr); and my Chrome browser with Do Not Track Me Plus running let through just two (eBay and ad provider Double Click).

The downside

It’s back to the caveman days of manually typing everything in, from passwords to URLs. There’s no auto-fill feature for log-ins or website addresses, because Epic doesn’t store any history. Nor does Epic save passwords, and it doesn’t yet work with password managers, so you’ll either have to remember all your log-ins or save them on your hard drive.

Browsing completely anonymously (mostly)

All of the options we’ve discussed prevent third parties from tracking you within and across websites. However, the website can still see where you came from through your IP address, and that address could be used as an alternate means of tracking your activities. For example, a person or company who disagreed with your comments on a site could use your IP information to track you down and sue you for libel.

To hide your IP address from being uncovered, you will need to use either an anonymous web proxy or virtual private network (VPN) service. Both not only mask your IP address from the website you’re visiting, but will also prevent anyone who monitors your network (e.g., your employer) from monitoring the sites you’re visiting.

The downside

Some of these services have stronger privacy options than others, and many are still susceptible to disclosure if they receive a legal subpoena from the jurisdiction where they’re located. Read our article on VPNs and web proxies for more details.

Future tracking options

What we do online has value to companies now because of what we may buy if we’re shown the relevant advertising. Down the line, we might be the ones negotiating the worth of our web habits.

Encrypt your own web behavior

The Meeco app for iOS recently launched with the ability to log your web visits — where you visited and for how long — and save the traffic into an encrypted cloud accessible only by you. Websites can only see what you click on while you’re on them, not what you do after and before, preventing the site from building a profile of you. The software also analyzes your usage patterns so you can glean insight into your habits — the same insight brands buy from data brokers now. Eventually, the idea is to create a data framework where users can offer such data to brands in exchange for loyalty points, discounts or other incentives.

Founder and CEO Katryna Dow says an aim is to help people understand that the value of their data is invaluable — and, at the moment, immeasurable.

A Meeco browser extension for Chrome and Firefox is available in beta; currently, users must manually add favorite sites to the dashboard, then click them in order to launch the site in the browser’s (natively available) private window.

The downside

Right now, the browser extension does not save the traffic to your Meeco encrypted account (as the iOS app does), but Dow says the company is looking at including the feature in future updates.

Where to draw the privacy line

Being tracked and advertised to by the websites we use is the trade-off for a free Internet. In fact, there are some really good reasons for why you may want to be tracked online,

But not drawing our own line at how much privacy we are willing to give up could mean some companies will cross that line when it comes to where they scrape information about us. Your likes, dislikes and identifying details taken from email, private messages or personal notes could then be linked (as Google already does) to information from other facets of your online life, and companies or the government may eventually make assumptions about who you are before offering you a service. Whether you find that convenient or creepy, it’s something everyone should have control over, not default into.

What do you think? Have you downloaded browser plug-ins to control your privacy, or do you believe that targeted advertising is what makes the Internet go?

This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Web

FTC Mandates Refunds for Online Backorders Over 30 Days

Online Shopping
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By now, most everyone has an e-retail horror story.

Mine happened several years ago when I ordered a sale priced flat-screen TV from a major tech website. My credit card was charged immediately when I placed the order, but the television never shipped. It was still back ordered months later, and every time I checked back in with the unhelpful seller, there was no new delivery date in sight. Only after I challenged the charge on my credit card statement did the website finally relent and agree to refund my money and the interest charges that accumulated while waiting.

Thankfully, these kinds of horror stories will soon be a thing of the past. This week, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced new rules regarding the timeliness of fulfilling online orders. In short, if a website cannot put an item in your hands in 30 days, it needs to offer you a refund. The FTC writes (PDF):

The Rule prohibits sellers from soliciting mail, Internet, or telephone order sales unless they have a reasonable basis to expect that they can ship the ordered merchandise within the time stated on the solicitation or, if no time is stated, within 30 days. The Rule further requires a seller to seek the buyer’s consent to the delayed shipment when the seller learns that it cannot ship within the time stated or, if no time is stated, within 30 days. If the buyer does not consent, the seller must promptly refund all money paid for the unshipped merchandise.

The new rule is slated to go into effect on December 8, which is good news for those of us planning on doing our holiday shopping online this year. Similar rules have existed for mail orders since 1975 and for telephone orders since 1993. You can read the full details of the updated Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule by visiting www.ftc.gov.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME How-To

Manage What Happens to Your Online Accounts After You Die

computer keys
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Consider the size of your online presence—your Facebook account, which details your daily life and personal history; your email account, which contains a wealth of your personal and business communications; photos, music and documents you have stored in the cloud; online banking accounts and records; frequent flier miles and more.

What happens to all this stuff when you die?

Will heirs be able to access your accounts to manage your affairs or do you want to prevent them from snooping around in virtual territory you want kept private? Will your accounts simply evaporate over time or will your Facebook page still be up long after you’re gone?

While some people don’t care, others find the idea of their digital assets outliving them disconcerting. Creating a digital will helps you determine which accounts survive and which you take to your grave.

How to Create a Digital Will

The U.S. government wrote a blog post about this very topic and suggested that people create social media wills that spell out how their online identities are to be handled after death. To do it, you should:

  1. Appoint someone as an online executor. Because you’ll be leaving this person with the keys to your digital kingdom, this person should be someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to close or memorialize your accounts, capable of protecting your sensitive information from identity thieves or snoopers, tech-savvy enough to be able to make changes to your accounts and trustworthy to carry out your wishes.
  2. State in a formal document how you want your profiles and accounts to be handled. For example, do you want your email account deleted without anyone reading your messages? Do you want your Facebook account deactivated or would you rather have your Timeline memorialized (meaning only friends can see your page and leave posts in remembrance)?
  3. Understand the privacy policies of each website with which you’re associated. You should know that unless you leave your online executor your passwords, there might not be much he or she can do. Google, for example, won’t let anyone into your email account without that person putting forth an application and undergoing a formal and lengthy process and, even then, he or she might not get in. Same goes with Facebook.
  4. Provide your online executor a list of all the websites and login credentials for which you want he or she to take action. If someone makes changes to your account by pretending to be you it may violate a website’s terms of service, but legally your designation of an online executor is akin to granting a limited power of attorney.
  5. State in your will that the online executor should have a copy of your death certificate. This may help him or her take action on your behalf with various websites and accounts.

Working With Your Lawyer On a Digital Will

Julie Min Chayet, managing director and trust counsel for Fiduciary Trust Company International in New York City, says the idea of a digital will hasn’t become mainstream. However, clients do ask attorneys to include all sorts of requests in their Last Will and Testament, so requesting that someone clean up a digital footprint online is perfectly acceptable and recommended.

Chayet says the executor named in your Last Will and Testament has to settle all matters relating to one’s life—financial or otherwise—and you can specify that this person also should handle your online accounts.

“From a legal standpoint, the responsibilities of a court appointed executor or administrator include shutting down digital assets and accounts. It’s just important to be clear about what needs to be done with information and for the not-too-tech-savvy executor it is important to be explicit about next steps,” she says.

For example, you could leave a written statement to be posted on your Facebook account.

“It’s comparable to someone planning his or her own funeral down to every last detail of choosing the burial site, the music to be played, clothing to be worn, flowers displayed, poems or readings to be read and food to be served,” Chayet says. “Settling an estate is incredibly stressful and emotional. Being prepared will only help your loved ones in every aspect of their mourning.”

Websites That Can Help

While you can certainly keep your digital asset information on paper to be handed over to your online executor once you die, the reality is passwords frequently change and keeping an up-to-date paper list can be a pain. Instead, many password management websites offer features that will turn your digital assets over to others at the appropriate time.

Password Box’s Legacy Locker feature lets you identify your online assets and login credentials as well as “verifiers”—people you trust to handle your online accounts after your death. Once you have passed away, your verifiers must contact Password Box, confirm their identities and the website transfers your account information to them as well as any letters you may have left at the site for family, friends or colleagues.

Price: The first 25 saved passwords are free. Additional password slots can be purchased for $12/year.

SecureSafe is similar to Legacy Locker, but adds various amounts of file storage along with password management and transfer to beneficiaries.

Price: Several pricing and storage tiers are available, starting with a free account that gives you 50 password slots and 10 megabyes of storage.

This article was written by Christina DesMarais and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Television

Hello, Simpsons World. Goodbye, the Rest of Your Life

THE SIMPSONS: The Simpson Family. THE SIMPSONS ª and ©Ê2013 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Fox

The biggest TV premiere of the fall season could be the one involving a 25-year-old show

Years ago, when I named The Simpsons the best TV show of the 20th century for TIME magazine, one of the reasons that I gave was its depth; it had a vast canvas and dozens, nay hundreds, of characters well-drawn enough to potentially carry a story. It “created worlds within worlds,” I wrote — and this October, it’s going to become a world.

Simpsons World, to be exact: the digital platform, unveiled for TV reporters in Los Angeles yesterday, that FXX network will use to take maximum advantage of acquiring the entire 25-season run of The Simpsons. Accessible on the web and through apps (you also need service from a participating cable provider), it will allow you to watch any Simpsons episode you want, any time.

So there are several years of your life gone right there. But there’s more. You’ll be able to search for episodes by themes, quotes, and characters: if you want to watch nothing but Artie Ziff clips, your dream has come true. You can pull up an extensive episode guide and scripts. You can build playlists or have them suggested for you. And most important: you’ll be able to find, snip and share Simpsons clips–currently made scarce by the long arm of copyright law–in social media.

You may never do anything else again.

The ability to watch all 552 episodes is staggering in itself. (FXX will also marathon the whole shebang Aug. 21 to Sept. 1.) But it’s the search-and-share functions that threaten to transform communication as we know it. I’ve long said that there is a Simpsons quote applicable to nearly every situation in life; now we will be able to prove that. Online comments arguments will become an endless stream of “HA ha” and “Eat my shorts” clips. No one will be able to publish a beer review or write about a celebrity-drunkenness incident without a clip of Homer saying, “To alcohol! The cause of — and solution to— all of life’s problems!” We may be on the verge of a Simpsons Singularity, in which all digital dialogue, and eventually all of human thought, will be expressed in terms of easily accessible Simpsons quotes. (Here, for instance, is where I would insert a clip of Homer saying, “Television: Teacher — mother — secret lover!” if only I could.)

More seriously, the venture suggests a new kind of future for TV, or at least for certain kinds of entertainments and franchises: one in which truly immersive TV is not just a show but an app, a platform, a medium. TV shows used to be on channels; now something like The Simpsons can be a channel. Earlier this month, South Park — long maintained with as much independence as possible by Trey Parker and Matt Stone — signed a different but related deal with Hulu, which gets rights to its entire catalog of reruns for over $80 million.

It’s not Simpsons World exactly — though South Park has long had an online home at South Park Studios — but it underscores a similar creative and business fact: a creative franchise evolving into something independent from, and in some ways greater than, any particular channel that happens to host it at the time.

Probably certain kinds of shows are more suited to world-ificiation than others: animated comedies like The Simpsons and South Park have vast room for invention, and large-scale world-building is part of their mission. But someday the same kind of strategy might be used by, say, a sci-fi or fantasy franchise or an immersive soap opera.

It’s partly a business phenomenon, in which digital opportunities allow already big franchises to become even bigger. But hopefully, there are creative implications here. What makes a Simpsons or South Park — or a Game of Thrones — great is its ability to create a vast imagined reality. If there are more ways to encourage that and reward the artists who create it, so much the better. The Simpsons, as producer Al Jean pointed out at yesterday’s presentation, predates social media (and it debuted on Fox the same year Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web), but it was creating a virtual world even then. Now that world is inviting our world in.

I still say The Simpsons was the greatest TV show of the 20th century. It would be something if it helped redefine what TV shows are going to be in the 21st century.

TIME China

China Jails 32 People for Online Terror Charges

A man plays a computer game at an internet cafe in Beijing
A man plays a computer game at an internet cafe in Beijing May 9, 2014. Courts in Xinjiang on Friday sentenced 32 persons to prison for downloading and spreading violent Internet content. Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters

The sentencing is part of efforts to scour and scrub the Internet for material promoting religious warfare or teaching bomb-making methods that Chinese authorities say have fueled recent attacks.

(BEIJING) — Courts in a restive region of western China sentenced 32 people to prison, three of them for life, for downloading and spreading violent Internet content that authorities have blamed for inspiring a recent string of deadly attacks, state media said Friday.

The other 29 people were handed sentences ranging from four to 15 years’ imprisonment by seven courts in the region on Thursday, according to state broadcaster CCTV and the region’s official newspaper, the Xinjiang Daily.

The sentencing is part of efforts to scour and scrub the Internet for material promoting religious warfare or teaching bomb-making methods that Chinese authorities say have fueled recent attacks.

Escalating unrest in the Xinjiang region, home to China’s Turkic Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic minority who want more autonomy from Beijing, has posed a serious challenge to the administration of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping in his first 20 months in power. In May, a market bombing killed 43 people in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

The attacks, which have killed dozens of people this year, prompted Beijing to launch an expansive security crackdown in the region, arresting several hundred people and sentencing scores to prison and in some cases to death.

Chinese state media have said that virtually all those taking part in recent attacks have been exposed to extremist content online. It said Xinjiang separatists have recently flooded the Web with such material, raising the challenge to authorities and the risk of further attacks.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Is Becoming a Global Hub For Internet Scams Preying on the Lovelorn

IAC Will Turn Match Dating Service Into a Separate Business
The Match.com website is displayed on laptop computers arranged for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The ease of obtaining visas, opening bank accounts and arranging money transfers are all part of Malaysia's newfound criminal appeal.

Lax student visa regulations and a high-tech banking system has made Malaysia a global hub for Internet scams, according to U.S. officials, with money being swindled out of unwitting Americans and Europeans by racketeers prowling online dating sites.

The conmen typically hail from Nigeria or Ghana and dupe lonely, middle-aged men and women from the U.S. and Western Europe through matchmaking services like Match.com, reports Reuters. A dozen new cases are reported to the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur every week, with scam complaints forming four-fifths of new work for duty officers.

“This is a serious issue hurting many Americans financially and emotionally,” said a U.S. embassy spokesperson. “We would hope that through publicity more Americans would be made aware of these scams.”

While most Internet users have received — only to swiftly mock and discard — some crude Nigerian scam emails, these tricksters are more sophisticated, and slowly build trust as a budding romance ripens. Then the request for money comes, normally a relatively small amount at first; but once the hooks are in, the victim struggles to turn down subsequent heftier demands without admitting to having been hoodwinked.

“Some victims find it very hard to break away from the relationship, even when they’ve been told it’s not real,” says Professor Monica Whitty, an expert on Internet fraud psychology. “So the criminal admits to scamming the victim but says that they also fell in love with them at the same time, and they get back into the same scam.”

But it is not just lovelorn Americans who are being swindled; other foreign embassies in Kuala Lumpur are dealing with similar complaints, reports Reuters. Whitty says that at least 500,000 U.K. citizens have fallen prey to such “sweetheart scams” since the phenomenon was first reported around 2007.

Slightly more men than women are duped by fraudulent lovers, but men are less likely to seek recompense out of embarrassment.

“Some people mortgage their houses to pay these criminals,” Whitty says, “but often the devastation they feel is more about the loss of the relationship than the money — of realizing they’ve been duped.”

And worryingly, such scams appear to be growing more common; last year, U.S.-based IT security developer SOPHOS ranked Malaysia as sixth globally in terms of cyber crime threat risks, as the total cyber crime bill topped $300 million. The ease of obtaining visas, opening bank accounts and arranging money transfers are all part of the nation’s criminal appeal.

“Scammers are increasingly using targeted social engineering attacks against their victims due to the extremely high success rate,” Ty Miller, an Australian security expert and founder of Threat Intelligence, tells TIME. “This not only affects individuals, but also organizations.”

Awareness and technology are key to tackling this scourge, says Miller, who is running a fraud-prevention course in Kuala Lumpur in October. “Techniques can be deployed that allow malicious individuals to be tracked,” he says, “which as time goes on will build intelligence to unveil the identity of the perpetrators.”

Amirudin Abdul Wahab, CEO of CyberSecurity Malaysia, an agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, says all involved nations must share information and jointly investigate cases according to agreed procedures and technical processes.

“Various authorities from the various countries involved should work together rather than blaming each other,” he said by email. “These countries need to synergize their efforts, in order to effectively address this scam problem.”

TIME privacy

How to Delete Yourself from the Internet

Americans love the Internet, with 87% of us active online. We have accounts everywhere, letting us kill time at work on Facebook, check Twitter for the latest news, cruise Pinterest for inspirational moodboards and hit Amazon for great shopping deals. On top of that, most of us also have a pile of inactive accounts created for discounts or one-off purchases.

With our digital footprints expanding, we are relaying more personal data than ever to trackers, hackers and marketers with and without our consent. Are we sharing too much? Do we have the right not to be tracked? Is withdrawing from the Internet entirely to preserve your privacy even possible? Let’s go over each of these issues.

Data dangers

Creating profiles at sites you use regularly has many benefits, such as ease of log-in and better suggestions for links or products you might like. But with growing concern over privacy terms that change at the drop of a hat, the sale of personal data by less scrupulous websites and the challenges of keeping stalker-y exes at bay, more and more Americans are deciding to reclaim and delete their personal data.

If you’re among the roughly 23% of Americans who use a single password for a handful of accounts, deleting inactive accounts is an important security measure. If a hacker cracked that password, you could suffer a domino-effect hacking of your other accounts too, especially if they are linked via a common email address.

Aside from the accounts and profiles we willingly create, our data is also exposed as hundreds of people search websites that comb police records, courthouse records and other public records such as real estate transactions, making our personal data publicly available to anyone who looks for it. Deleting this data isn’t as easy as you might expect — and many companies won’t remove your personal details fully.

Deleting your online presence

Tracking down all your data won’t be easy. There is no one service that will trawl the Internet for pieces of you, so start by tearing down your social profiles.

Start with JustDelete.me

A site called JustDelete.me provides an incredibly comprehensive list of email, social media, shopping and entertainment sites, along with notes on how difficult it is to completely erase your account and links to actually get it done. This is a great resource to help you remember and find unused profiles as well as gauging how much effort you’ll have to expend to shut it down.

Find other open accounts

Next, review your email accounts, looking for marketing updates and newsletters to get wind of other accounts you may still hold or companies that have bought your email address. Then go through your phone and check for apps that have required you to create accounts.

Once you’ve created a list of accounts, you then should sort them according to how often you use them, if at all. Delete any you don’t use. “Data is an asset to these companies,” says Jacqui Taylor, CEO of web science company Flying Binary. “Not only are these companies able to monetize you as their product, you aren’t even receiving a service in exchange.”

Working off your list of accounts, head back to JustDelete.me and use it as a springboard to start deleting accounts.

Downloading and removing your content

If there’s data you’d like to keep — say, photos or contact lists — you may be able to download them before deleting your account. Facebook and Twitter data can be downloaded in the respective Settings tabs, while LinkedIn contacts can be exported via Contact Settings.

At many sites such as Evernote and Pinterest, you won’t be able to delete your account. You can only deactivate it and then manually remove personal data. At sites such as Apple, this process includes a call to customer service.

Don’t forget background checking sites

To find out which background check websites have posted information about you, check out the list of popular sites on this Reddit thread. Then go to each and try searching for your name. See if you pop up in the first few pages of search results. If you do, the same Reddit thread has information on opting out, but get ready for a hassle: usually calling, faxing and sending in physical proof that you are who you say you are. After that, expect to wait anywhere from 10 working days to six weeks for information to disappear.

Sites that don’t allow complete withdrawal

A large number of companies make it impossible to delete all traces of your accounts. According to JustDelete.me, this list includes Etsy, the online marketplace for home crafters, which retains your email address no matter what; Gawker Media, which retains the rights to all posts you made; and Netflix, which keeps your watch history and recommendations “just in case you want to come back.”

Then there’s Twitter, which signed a deal with the Library of Congress in 2013 giving it the right to archive all public tweets from 2006 on. This means that anything you’ve posted publicly since then is owned by the government and will stay archived even if you delete your account.

To prevent future tweets from being saved, convert your settings to private so that only approved followers can read your tweets. (Go to the settings in the security and privacy section.)

Shut down your Facebook account by going to Settings, Security and then click “Deactivate my account.” You can download all of your posts and images first by going to Settings, General and then click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

However, you’ve already agreed to the social media giant’s terms and conditions, which state that Facebook has the right to keep traces of you in its monolithic servers. Basically any information about you held by another Facebook user (such as conversations still in the other person’s inbox or your email address if it’s in a friend’s contact list) will be preserved.

The divide between companies that make it easy to delete your data and the companies that make it difficult is clear. “If you’re the product (on such free services as the social platforms), the company tends to make it difficult,” Taylor says. Monetizing your data is the basis of the business model for such companies.

For services like eBay and Paypal, Taylor adds, you aren’t the product (both collect fees from sellers), making it easier to delete your account and associated data.

The right to be forgotten

Being able to erase social and other online data is linked to a larger issue: the right to be forgotten online. In the European Union, a recent Court of Justice ruling gave EU residents the right to request that irrelevant, defamatory information be removed from search engine databases. However, no such service is available to the residents of United States.

“You should be able to say to any service provider that you want your data to be deleted,” Taylor says. “If someone leaves this earth, how can their data still be usable by all these companies?”

When erasure isn’t an option

Much of our personal data online is hosted on social platforms that regularly update their terms of service to change how our data can be used. A privacy policy that you were comfortable with when you signed on could evolve to become something you don’t agree with at all.

“Your digital footprint is not under your control if you’re using these free services,” Taylor says.

But in an increasingly connected, virtual age, it can seem inconceivable not to have a footprint at all. Most of us use a social account to log in to dozens of other sites. Some sites require that you do so: for example, Huffington Post requires a Facebook log-in, while YouTube commenters need a Google+ log-in.

Employers frequently perform background checks through Google or dedicated third-party social media checkers. In many professions, an online portfolio of work on the likes of WordPress or Tumblr is a necessity. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to communicate socially without the aid of a Facebook or Twitter account.

Given the realities of our connected world today, not being online can be seen as a negative. The key, Taylor says, is to take ownership of your data. Control how much of your personal data is available online by pruning inactive accounts. Create new accounts selectively, and post with the understanding that within a single update to the terms of service, your data could become publicly shared or further monetized.

This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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MONEY stocks

Four Theories on What Jeff Bezos and Amazon Are Really Up To

The big question was never what Amazon.com AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.6323% would unveil on Wednesday. Most observers knew it was the company’s first smartphone, called the Fire Phone — the first smartphone on the market with a 3D display.

 

No, the real question is: What is CEO Jeff Bezos’ endgame?

 

Why does this online retailer, which has recently branched out into tablet computers and flying delivery drones, want to inch its way into the crowded smartphone space that Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 0.1376% and Samsung, two bigger companies with much deeper pockets, already dominate?

 

Theories abound, but here are the contenders:

 

Theory #1: Bezos wants to be king of all media — and advertising.

 

Most observers regard Amazon as either a retailer or an up-and-coming player in tech, thanks to its Kindle tablets and cloud computing service. But people forget the company’s roots are really in media — Amazon started out as a book seller with Bezos working out of a rented garage.

 

Big recent moves reinforce the notion that the company wants to dominate this space. Last week, Amazon launched a streaming music service that will compete with the likes of Spotify and Beats Music, which Apple just acquired.

 

The service will be offered free to Amazon Prime subscribers who pay $99 a year to get unlimited two-day shipping from the retailer. Those Prime members already get access to Amazon’s streaming video service that competes directly with Netflix NETFLIX INC. NFLX -2.1351% . (Like Netflix, Amazon has also begun to produce its own original content, like the show Alpha House, starring John Goodman).

 

Just as Kindles are starting to perk up Amazon’s overall media sales — on a quarterly basis, sales of video, books and other content are now growing 21%, up from 15% in 2012 — a smartphone would surely help boost streaming music.

 

Of course, you might be asking: Isn’t the media industry maturing? So why would Amazon want to double down on this business?

 

Well, it’s not just the content that Amazon desires — it’s the ability to sell online advertising against that content and on Amazon-controlled devices, which now includes a smartphone.

 

Jay Greene of The Seattle Times writes that while Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG 0.4992% and Facebook FACEBOOK INC. FB 0.2038% get all the attention for their potential to attract online advertisers, the data that Amazon has on “its 237 million active customer accounts…puts Google to shame.” He’s right. While Google and Facebook can tell advertisers what its customers like, Amazon can tell them what they actually buy…and when…and how frequently…and to a certain extent why.

 

By some estimates, Amazon will pull in close to $1 billion in online ads this year, which would put it well ahead of online advertising darlings such as Twitter TWITTER INC. TWTR 0.5526% and LinkedIn LINKEDIN CORP. LNKD -0.5493% .

 

Theory #2: Bezos wants to be king of tech.

 

So what if Amazon started life as a retailer? If anything, Bezos knows how to adapt.

 

And he knows that the profit margins for technology companies far exceed those for retailers.

 

^XIT Chart

^XIT data by YCharts

Amazon stumbled into being a tech company in a variety of ways. For instance, the servers and computing capacity needed to power Amazon.com’s retail operations early on gave birth to Amazon Web Services. That’s the company’s cloud computing business, which recently won a major contract from the CIA, beating out rival IBM, the mother of all tech services firms.

 

Meanwhile, the Kindle was developed as a vehicle to boost online book sales. And the company, which is constantly looking for ways to speed up delivery, recently purchased Kiva Systems, which makes robots that help automate and speed up the packing process at warehouses. Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Shawne Milne notes that Bezos wants “to significantly ramp the implementation of Kiva’s robots within Amazon’s fulfillment centers from 1,000 currently to 10,000 by the end of the year.” Milne says this technology could eventually end up saving the company anywhere from $450 million to $900 million a year in costs.

 

Okay, Amazon will have the cloud and warehouse robot markets cornered. How will this help the company compete in the saturated smartphone space?

 

It should be noted that critics raised similar concerns about tablets, yet the Kindle has been able to carve out roughly 7% to 8% share in this difficult space, which in turn has boosted Amazon’s digital media sales. Not only that, analysts believe that the larger Amazon eco-system that the Kindle has promoted now accounts for up to $8 billion in revenue for the company.

 

Besides, Amazon does not need to be the top dog in smartphones for this move to pay off. For instance, if the company were able to seize just 1% of that portion of the smartphone market that uses Google’s Android platform, that could lead to $1 billion to $1.5 billion in annual revenues, according to Janney Montgomery Scott. If Amazon managed to grab a mere 3% of the Android market, it could add nearly $5 billion in sales at a time when Wall Street is starting to question Amazon’s potential growth rate.

 

Theory #3: Bezos wants to be king of all distribution.

 

Amazon isn’t a retailer as much as it is a transactor.

 

For instance, Amazon created a platform and marketplace that allows the company to process transactions for tens of thousands of small businesses. Rather than viewing these mom-and-pop shops as competitors, Amazon offers its services to them in exchange for a cut of each purchase. So anytime a retail transaction is made online, there’s now an even better chance that Amazon will profit from it. Edward Jones analyst Josh Olson describes the company’s global distribution network as a “real moat” that gives the company a competitive edge.

 

The same principle works for cloud computing, where Amazon is happy to distribute server capacity to competitors such as Netflix in exchange for a fee. Therefore, whether its rival grows or shrinks, Amazon wins.

 

The strategy also applies to the new online payment service that Amazon launched this month, which will compete with eBay’s Paypal. And the same goes for AmazonSupply, a B2B site that Amazon is quietly building to get a cut of the $7 trillion market for supplying businesses.

 

And ditto for smartphones, which are devices that will allow Amazon to process millions of new transactions — be it for digital content or general merchandise.

 

Theory #4: Bezos is trying to buy time.

Think of it as a big shell game. While Bezos is on stage trying to dazzle you with a 3D smartphone, or with a new streaming music business, he wants investors not to focus on where the ball actually is.

 

And right now, the metaphoric ball is Amazon’s nearly non-existent profit margin. For instance, take a look at Amazon’s profit margin versus that of rival Apple:

 

AMZN Profit Margin (Quarterly) Chart

AMZN Profit Margin (Quarterly) data by YCharts

For years, Wall Street was content to bid the stock higher — despite the fact that the company barely turns a profit — as long as revenues soared. The belief was that near-term profits weren’t the point with a company like Amazon, which has been dutifully spending money to build out the necessary infrastructure to make Bezos’ long-term plans work.

 

AMZN Profit Margin (Annual) Chart

AMZN Profit Margin (Annual) data by YCharts

Last year, though, the company earned just $274 million off of revenues of nearly $75 billion. Investors have started losing patience, as seen by the performance of Amazon shares.

 

AMZN Chart

AMZN data by YCharts

Earlier this year, Colin Gillis, an analyst with the brokerage BGC Partners, even raised the question: “Is Amazon losing its status as a growth stock?”

 

For Bezos, then, this flashy foray into smartphones may be a way to distract investors from the realization that it may take years for Amazon to convert its revenues into real profits.

 

Amazon shares trade at a price/earnings ratio of nearly 500, based on the past 12 months of actual profits. While Wall Street may tolerate that in a fast-growing tech company, they won’t in a barely profitable retailer.

 

So, smartly, Bezos is choosing to play the tech card — at least until the retail profits materialize.

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