data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.

 

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia

The rules are important at Burning Man. But being rich means you get to do what you want, just like anywhere else

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia
El Pulpo Mecanico, at the Burning Man 2012 “Fertility 2.0″ arts and music festival, August 29, 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

“Burning Man culture,” writes Gregory Ferenstein in Vox, “discourages money or bartering; the entire economy is a gift economy.”

Ferenstein, a regular attendee at the Nevada desert counterculture festival so beloved by Northern California’s tech-hipsters, is defending Burning Man from critics like the New York Times’ Nick Bilton, who have noted that in recent years, rich attendees have been setting up their own luxury camps within the confines of Black Rock City. Ferenstein makes some good points explaining why tech billionaires love Burning Man, but it’s still difficult to square his point on “burning man culture” with the details reported by Bilton.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs… “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

Such camps, reports Bilton, also included “Sherpas” that serve as servants.

Ferenstein writes that the tech execs have basically the same experience as everyone else. But he appears to be tone-deaf to the enormous offense of labeling paid employees “Sherpas” and doesn’t bother to mention the female models flown in from New York. That’s not the gift economy, and it’s not the sharing economy. And it’s surely not something that anyone even imagined possible when tripping around a very big bonfire on Baker Beach in the early ’90s.



Ferenstein also wanders into a self-combusting contradiction, of the sort that would look pretty good exploding  in the desert night. Burning Man, he writes, “is an experiment in what a city would look like if it were architected for wild creativity and innovation…. At Burning Man, sharing is the economy. It’s rather appealing to the Silicon Valley elite to see an entire city function on an economic idea that is at the heart of the knowledge economy. It’s an important glimpse of why the founders are so optimistic that a loosely regulated field of tech startups can outweigh the potential downsides of unregulated sharing.”

But Burning Man is intensely regulated. It’s got its own police force. Gun control is absolute. Attendance is limited to a set number of people who can afford the not-cheap tickets. The very layout of Black Rock City is a paean to planning and organization. Central control is as much the essence of Burning Man as is hedonism and fire.

We can argue about the proper extent of regulation. Is Burning Man more like Houston, which scoffs at zoning restrictions, or San Francisco, where plastic bags are outlawed? (The rules on trash at Burning Man might come off as pretty extreme to your typical happy-go-lucky free market polluter, after all.) But to use Burning Man as a model for what tech billionaires want for a greater society is to actually argue that rules are extremely important, and anarchy is a failure!

The key point made by Nick Bilton is that the very existence of a camp inside Burning Man where tickets cost $25,000 and female companionship is imported is a demonstration that Burning Man, far from being an alternative to society, is business as usual.

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/why_burning_man_is_not_an_example_of_a_loosely_regulated_tech_utopia/?source=newsletter

Not Content To Ruin Just San Francisco, Rich Techies Are Gentrifying Burning Man Too

facebook-like-altar.jpg
Artist Dadara‘s Facebook like altar from Burning Man 2013. Photo: Bexx Brown-Spinelli/Flickr

This will come as news only to people who have not attended Burning Man in the last couple of years, but the New York Times has just caught on to the fact that Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires) have been attending the desert festival in greater numbers and quickly ruining it with their displays of wealth. While we used to call Coachella “Burning Man Lite for Angelenos,” Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk who want to get naked and do bong hits with Larry Page in Elon Musk’s decked-out RV.

Burners won’t just be sharing the playa with Larry and Sergey, Zuck, Grover Norquist, and at least one Winklevoss twin this year. There will also be a legion of new millionaires, most of them probably Burning Man virgins, who will be living in the lap of luxury and occasionally dropping in on your parties to ask for molly.

Per the Times piece:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

The blockaded camps of the tech gentrifiers have tended to be in the outer rings of Black Rock City, as was previously reported in 2011 when a guest of Elon Musk’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out of the thick of it,” he said, “so we’re not offending the more elaborate or involved set ups.”

But as Silicon Valley assumes more and more of a presence on the playa, what’s to stop them from claiming better and better real estate, closer to where the action is?

You won’t see any evidence of this on Facebook, though. All of this happens without the tech world’s usual passion for documentation, since they do abide by at least that one tenet of Burning Man culture that frowns on photography. And at least, as of 2014, they seem to understand that their displays of wealth aren’t all that welcome, and should probably be kept on the down-low.

But seriously? Models flown in from New York? Gross.

[NYT]

 

http://sfist.com/2014/08/21/not_content_to_ruin_just_san_franci.php

Tech Industry Believes it Invented San Francisco, Burning Man, and Sex

Posted By on Tue, Aug 12, 2014 at 7:30 AM

Inspired by Bay Area tech industry - FLICKR/CROWCOMBE AL

According to reports, the Silicon Valley-based tech industry has convinced itself that it invented everything it enjoys, including Democracy, rule of law, San Francisco, Burning Man, and sex.

“Techies are really innovative, so it’s only natural that they would hack human sexuality by coming up with a pleasurable use for what was previously just a reproductive process,” Google employee Miles Davidson said. “You’re welcome.”

Brent Sternberg, a Facebook engineer who started attending Mission Control sex parties a year ago, said that blow jobs simply wouldn’t have been possible without social media. “How could you have ever told someone that you like it?” he asked. “It would never work.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, said he believes that the tech giant is on track to invent S&M by 2025. “It will be incredibly pleasurable,” he said, “unless it hurts too much. Until we develop it, there’s just no way to know.”

Apple vice president of design Louis Harris is especially proud of the tech industry for inventing Burning Man, a 27-year-old annual arts event, in 2008.

“Prior to the tech industry, no one had really considered creating experimental communities, or going camping,” Harris said. “But then thousands of tech workers disrupted the desert and invented DJs.”

Not everything has gone well since then, Harris admitted. “The problem with Burning Man is that since the tech industry invented it, it’s gotten so popular that all these artists are showing up, and they don’t know anything about the culture.”

That’s also a problem with what many see as the tech industry’s crowning achievement: the city of San Francisco.

“We really knocked that one out of the park,” said Twitter Vice President Larry Johnson. “When we got here there wasn’t a single unaffordable building, there were musicians in lofts, and the place was just filled with women. But we’ve really turned that around.”

LinkedIn Senior Data Analyst Rod Suchet agreed. “San Francisco is famous the whole world over as a city of art, and art was originally an App for the iStore. It’s famous for its restaurants, and restaurants were originally developed so that Google’s cafeteria could telecommute. Honestly, was there even a music scene in San Francisco before Pandora digitized it? Did this town even have an economy before we started to displace it?”

As of press time, Suchet had meant to Google the answer but had been distracted by a cat video. Cats, for those not in the know, were invented by YouTube in 2006.

Benjamin Wachs is a literary chameleon. 

http://www.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2014/08/12/tech-industry-believes-it-invented-san-francisco-burning-man-and-sex

Here’s Why Republicans Should Not Be Getting into Burning Man

By Tom Berman

Photo by Vito Fun

If you pay attention to the American political scumbag carnival, you’ve probably heard of Grover Norquist. He’s the head of Americans for Tax Reform, a lobbying group known for keeping tight reins on the Republican Party through the anti-tax pledge they exact from elected officials. “The Pledge,” as it’s known, prevents Congress from reaching compromise on virtually every issue. However, Grover’s power is dwindling, as more and more lawmakers refuse his pledge. So, like a lot of white guys facing a mid-career crisis, he’s decided to go to Burning Man.

Burning Man, if you didn’t know, is a celebration of absurdity, art, and self-sufficiency that occurs every year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. So far, Norquist is behaving like a typical first-year “Burner” by telling everyone he knows about his plans to attend. With a single tweet, he attracted an avalanche of commentary. Last year, Seth Rogen told the world he was headed to Burning Man—on TV, no less—and received just a small slice of the attention won by Norquist.

I’m like a lot of people who are into Burning Man, in the sense that I groaned when I chanced upon Norquist’s tweet. Aside from Rogen, celebrities tend not to announce their plans to attend, because it’s considered a faux pas to use the event for self-promotion. As LeBron James will tell you, self-aggrandizing announcements cast doubt on one’s intentions. In future communications, Grover would do well to follow the lead of this guy, who at least managed to stay off Twitter until he had a sweet picture to post.

Photo by Vito Fun

Norquist went on to do an interview about Burning Man with the National Journal, which really ought to know better. According to the Journal, he stated: “Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.” He also claimed that “there’s no government that organizes” it.

Burning Man, like any city or nation, requires funding and organization to function. When people buy tickets, they help to pay for the event’s needs as a price of citizenship. It’s exactly the same as a tax.

Photo by Vito Fun

The annual event is organized by a series of departments that serve the event like a de facto government. They are managed by the Burning Man Organization, which maintains a year-round office in San Francisco and acts as an executive branch. Most of the people who work for the staff departments are unpaid volunteers, but each team requires gobs of resources in order to make the event a reality.

Burning Man’s Department of Public Works provides the event’s critical infrastructure. They institute a “City Plan,” survey street alignments, and employ an arsenal of heavy machinery to help build the art installations that Grover can’t wait to scope out. The DPW also coordinates the Playa Restoration Team that stays behind for weeks to clean the site, because the event is only allowed to re-occur if it picks up after itself.

Photo by Vito Fun

Then there’s Gate, Perimeter, and Exodus, who manage the event’s arduous entry and exit process. They employ radar, night vision, and elbow grease to thwart stowaways and fence jumpers, who are the Burning Man equivalent of tax dodgers. Grover Norquist knows all about tax dodgers, because many of them are his biggest contributors.

The Black Rock Rangers mediate disputes between attendees, and shut down and search the city if somebody’s kid gets lost. There’s also Burning Man Information Radio, which serves as the sort of public broadcast system that Norquist’s friends love to hate.

Photo by Flickr user Jon Collier

The Emergency Services Department partners with a nearby hospital to provide paramedic and medical services. If they can address an illness or injury without shipping the patient back to Reno, their services are paid for by the ticket proceeds. Norquist should be aware that his supposed libertarian Xanadu is a proud provider of single-payer health care.

In an echo of everyone’s least favorite government agency, there’s a Department of Mutant Vehicles, which inspects and registers the event’s famed Art Cars. Without them, Burning Man would turn into a janky demolition derby. This would be bad, because nothing sucks the fun out of a fire-shooting octopus encounter like vehicular manslaughter.

Photo by Flickr user Ian Norman

There are even staff teams looking out for Grover’s beloved One Percenters, like the airport that serves the growing share of people who arrive by chartered plane.

Finally, you’ve got the actual US government, which manifests itself at Burning Man as the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM enforces the 20-page Interior Department closure order that makes the event a reality. By my count, that’s two separate governments working at once. Without either, Grover wouldn’t get to rave. He’d be forced to settle for the creepy Porcupine Festival campout in New Hampshire, which nobody on Twitter is going to give a shit about.

Norquist probably knows all of this. He’s been itching to attend Burning Man since 2012. And he’s an alum of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding society, which means he’s a nerd. I’ll bet he’s reading up on the event the way a 15-year-old devours the Harry Potter books.

Photo by Vito Fun

Grover should expect to have a good time, though, because nerds excel at Burning Man. It’s like a political campaign: You learn a map, do a budget, and endure compatriots who use the whole thing as an excuse to binge-drink. Burning Man also celebrates recklessness, and Grover’s a proven daredevil thanks to his hard-ball debt-ceiling politics. How can any acrobat or fire spinner compete with a guy who can endanger all the world’s money?

Still, he shouldn’t stop at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation on his way up from Reno. The locals may recall the time he helped scam Native Americans by laundering Jack Abramoff’s money. And he shouldn’t discuss his support for South African Apartheid in the 80s. Most of the people he’ll meet are California and Oregon neo-hippies, and Apartheid stuff will harsh their mellow.

He should, rather, expect a warm reception. Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion doesn’t stop at K Street.

Photo by Vito Fun

So here’s a personal welcome from yours truly: Welcome home, Grover! Go forth with a reckless spirit and an open heart. Seize each day, and have the time of your life.

I hope you chance upon some synthetic psychedelics. I hope you wind up lying on your back in the dust, eating peanut butter with a spoon, and watching as hallucinations of zebras and baby goats cavort against the sunrise. I even hope you trip so hard that you realize what an asshole you are.

No matter what happens, keep one thing in mind: People move heaven and earth to reach this event to test their limits, to make friends, and to challenge their preconceptions. Nobody is showing up to serve as a thin, cherry-picked rationale for your sniveling politics.

 

http://www.vice.com/read/heres-why-republicans-should-not-be-getting-into-burning-man-804?utm_source=vicenewsletter

Meet the Online Tracking Device That is Virtually Impossible to Block

A new kind of tracking tool, canvas fingerprinting, is being used to follow visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.

(David Sleight/ProPublica)

Update: A YouPorn.com spokesperson said that the website was “completely unaware that AddThis contained a tracking software that had the potential to jeopardize the privacy of our users.” After this article was published, YouPorn removed AddThis technology from its website.

This story was co-published with Mashable.

A new, extremely persistent type of online tracking is shadowing visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.com.

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

 

Canvas Fingerprinting in Action

Watch your browser generate a unique fingerprint image. This is for informational purposes only and no fingerprint information is sent to ProPublica. (Mike Tigas, ProPublica)

See your browser’s fingerprintClick the button above and your computer and web browser will draw a ProPublica-designed canvas fingerprint.

 

Like other tracking tools, canvas fingerprints are used to build profiles of users based on the websites they visit — profiles that shape which ads, news articles, or other types of content are displayed to them.

But fingerprints are unusually hard to block: They can’t be prevented by using standard Web browser privacy settings or using anti-tracking tools such as AdBlock Plus.

The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company called AddThis, on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish. (A list of all the websites on which researchers found the code is here).

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Harris said the company considered the privacy implications of canvas fingerprinting before launching the test, but decided “this is well within the rules and regulations and laws and policies that we have.”

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

Arvind Narayanan, the computer science professor who led the Princeton research team, countered that forcing users to take AddThis at its word about how their data will be used, is “not the best privacy assurance.”

Device fingerprints rely on the fact that every computer is slightly different: Each contains different fonts, different software, different clock settings and other distinctive features. Computers automatically broadcast some of their attributes when they connect to another computer over the Internet.

Tracking companies have long sought to use those differences to uniquely identify devices for online advertising purposes, particularly as Web users are increasingly using ad-blocking software and deleting cookies.

In May 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, noticed that a Web programming feature called “canvas” could allow for a new type of fingerprint — by pulling in different attributes than a typical device fingerprint.

How You Can Try to Thwart Canvas Fingerprinting

  • Use the Tor browser (Warning: can be slow)
  • Block JavaScript from loading in your browser (Warning: breaks a lot of web sites)
  • Use NoScript browser extension to block JavaScript from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: requires a lot of research and decision-making)
  • Try the experimental browser extension Chameleon that is designed to block fingerprinting (Warning: only recommended for tech-savvy users at this point)
  • Install opt-out cookies from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: fingerprint will likely still be collected, companies simply pledge not to use the data for ad targeting or personalization)

In June, the Tor Project added a feature to its privacy-protecting Web browser to notify users when a website attempts to use the canvas feature and sends a blank canvas image. But other Web browsers did not add notifications for canvas fingerprinting.

A year later, Russian programmer Valentin Vasilyev noticed the study and added a canvas feature to freely available fingerprint code that he had posted on the Internet. The code was immediately popular.

But Vasilyev said that the company he was working for at the time decided against using the fingerprint technology. “We collected several million fingerprints but we decided against using them because accuracy was 90 percent,” he said, “and many of our customers were on mobile and the fingerprinting doesn’t work well on mobile.”

Vasilyev added that he wasn’t worried about the privacy concerns of fingerprinting. “The fingerprint itself is a number which in no way is related to a personality,” he said.

AddThis improved upon Vasilyev’s code by adding new tests and using the canvas to draw a pangram “Cwm fjordbank glyphs vext quiz” — a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. This allows the company to capture slight variations in how each letter is displayed.

AddThis said it rolled out the feature to a small portion of the 13 million websites on which its technology appears, but is considering ending its test soon. “It’s not uniquely identifying enough,” Harris said.

AddThis did not notify the websites on which the code was placed because “we conduct R&D projects in live environments to get the best results from testing,” according to a spokeswoman.

She added that the company does not use any of the data it collects — whether from canvas fingerprints or traditional cookie-based tracking — from government websites including WhiteHouse.gov for ad targeting or personalization.

The company offered no such assurances about data it routinely collects from visitors to other sites, such as YouPorn.com. YouPorn.com did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica about whether it was aware of AddThis’ test of canvas fingerprinting on its website.

Read our recent coverage about how online tracking is getting creepier, how Facebook has been tracking you, and what tools to use to protect yourself.

Commonly Used Drug Can Make Men Stop Enjoying Sex—Irreversibly


Some of the symptoms reported include impotence and thoughts of suicide and depression.

No one should have to choose between their hairline and their health. But increasingly, men who use finasteride, commonly known as Propecia, to treat their male pattern baldness are making that choice, often unwittingly. In the 17 years since Propecia was approved to treat hair loss from male pattern baldness, many disturbing side effects have emerged, the term post-finasteride syndrome (PFS) has been coined and hundreds of lawsuits have been brought.

Finasteride inhibits a steroid responsible for converting testosterone into 5α-dihydrotestosterone (DHT) the hormone that tells hair follicles on the scalp to stop producing hair. Years before Propecia was approved to grow hair, finasteride was being used in drugs like Proscar, Avodart and Jalyn to treat an enlarged prostate gland (benign prostatic hyperplasia). Like Viagra, which began as a blood pressure med, or the eyelash-growing drug Latisse, which began as a glaucoma drug, finasteride’s hair restoration abilities were a fortuitous side effect.

Since Propecia was approved for sale in 1997, its label has warned about sexual side effects. “A small number of men experienced certain sexual side effects, such as less desire for sex, difficulty in achieving an erection, or a decrease in the amount of semen,” it read. “Each of these side effects occurred in less than 2% of men and went away in men who stopped taking Propecia because of them.” (The label also warned about gynecomastia, the enlargement of male breast tissue.)

But increasingly, users and some doctors are saying the symptoms sometimes do not go away when men stop taking Propecia and that their lives can be changed permanently. They report impotence, lack of sexual desire, depression and suicidal thoughts and even a reduction in thesize of penises ortesticles after using the drug, which does not go away after discontinuation.

According to surgeon Andrew Rynne, former head of the Irish Family Planning Association, Merck, which makes Propecia and Proscar, knows that the disturbing symptoms do not always vanish. “They know it is not true because I and hundreds of other doctors and thousands of patients have told them that these side effects do not always go away when you stop taking Propecia. We continue to be ignored, of course.”

In some cases, says Rynne, men who have used finasteride for even a few months “have unwittingly condemned themselves to a lifetime of sexual anhedonia” [condition in which an individual feels no sexual pleasure], the most horrible and cruel of all sexual dysfunctions.”

“I have spoken to several young men in my clinic in Kildare who continue to suffer from sexual anaesthesia and for whom all sexual pleasure and feelings have been obliterated for all time. I have felt their suffering and shared their devastation,” he wrote on a Propecia help site.

Sarah Temori, who launched a petition to have finasteride taken off the market on Change.org, agrees. “Many who have taken Propecia have lost their marriages, jobs and some have committed suicide due to the damage this drug has done to their bodies,” she writes. “One of my loved ones is a victim of this drug. It’s painful to see how much he has to struggle just to make it through each day and do all the daily things that we take for granted. No doctors have been able to help him and he is struggling to pay for medical bills. He is only 23.”

Stories about Propecia’s disturbing and underreported side effects have run onCNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and on Italian and English TV news.

The medical literature has also investigated finasteride effects. A study last year in Journal of Sexual Medicine noted “changes related to the urogenital system in terms of semen quality and decreased ejaculate volume, reduction in penis size, penile curvature or reduced sensation, fewer spontaneous erections, decreased testicular size, testicular pain, and prostatitis.” Many subjects also noted a “disconnection between the mental and physical aspects of sexual function,” and changes in mental abilities, sleeping patterns, and/or depressive symptoms.

A study this year in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology finds that “altered levels of neuroactive steroids, associated with depression symptoms, are present in androgenic alopecia patients even after discontinuation of the finasteride treatment.”

Approved in Haste, Regretted in Leisure

The rise and fall of Propecia parallels other drugs like Vioxx or hormone replacement therapy that were marketed to wide demographics even as safety questions nipped at their heels. Two-thirds of American men have some hair loss by age 35, and 85 percent of men have some hair loss by age 50, so Propecia had the promise of a blockbuster like Lipitor or Viagra.

Early ads likened men’s thinning scalps to crop circles. Later, ads likened saving scalp hair to saving the whalesand won awards. Many Propecia ads tried to take away the stigma of hair loss and its treatment. “You’d be surprised who’s treated their hair loss,” said one print ad depicting athletic, 20-something men. In 1999 alone, Merck spent $100 million marketing Propecia directly to consumers, when direct-to-consumer advertising was just beginning on TV.

Nor was Propecia sold only in the U.S. Overseas ads compared twins who did and did not use the product. In the U.K., the drugstore chain Boots aggressively marketed Propecia at its 300 stores and still does. One estimates says Propecia was marketed in 120 countries.

Many have heard of “indication creep,” when a drug, after its original FDA approval, goes on to be approved for myriad other uses. Seroquel, originally approved for schizophrenia, is now approved as an add-on drug for depression and even for use in children. Cymbalta, originally approval as an antidepressant, went on to be approved for chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Less publicized is “warning creep,” when a drug that seemed safe enough for the FDA to approve, collects warning after warning once the public is using it. The poster child for warning creep is the bone drug Fosamax. After it was approved and in wide use, warnings began to surface about heart problems, intractable pain, jawbone death, esophageal cancer and even the bone fractures it was supposed to prevent. Oops.

But finasteride may do Fosamax proud. In 2003, it gained a warning for patients to promptly report any “changes in their breasts, such as lumps, pain or nipple discharge, to their physician.” Soon, “male breast cancer” was added under “postmarketing experience.” In 2010 depression was added as a side effect and patients were warned that finasteride could have an effect on prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests. In 2011, the label conceded that sexual dysfunction could continue “after stopping the medication” and that finasteride could pose a “risk of high-grade prostate cancer.” In 2012, a warning was added that “other urological conditions” should be considered before taking finasteride. In 2013, the side effect of angioedema was added.

A quick look at Propecia approval documents does not inspire confidence. Finasteride induces such harm in the fetuses of lab animals, it is contraindicated in women when they are or may potentially be pregnant and women should not even “handle crushed or broken Propecia tablets when they are pregnant.”

Clinical trials were of short duration and some only had 15 participants. While subjects were asked aesthetic questions about their hairline during and after clinical trials, conspicuously absent on the data set were questions about depression, mental health and shrinking sexual organs.

In one report an FDA reviewer notes that Merck did not name or include other drugs used by subjects during trials, such as antidepressants or GERD meds, suggesting that depression could have been a known side effect of Propecia. Elsewhere an FDA reviewer cautions that “low figures” in the safety update are not necessarily reliable because the time period was “relatively short” and subjects with sexual adverse events may have already “exited from the study.” An FDA reviewer also wrote that “long-term cancer effects are unknown.” Breast cancer was noted as an adverse event seen in the trials.

Propecia Users Speak Out

There are many Propecia horror stories on sites founded to help people with side effects and those involved in litigation. In 2011, a mother told CBS news she blamed her 22-year-old son’s suicide on Propecia and Men’s Journal ran a report called “The (Not So Hard) Truth About Hair Loss Drugs.”

In a database of more than 13,000 finasteride adverse effects reported to the FDA, there were 619 reports of depression and 580 reports of anxiety. Sixty-eight users of finasteride reported a “penis disorder” and small numbers reported “penis deviation,” “penis fracture” and “micropenis.”

On the patient drug review site Askapatient.com, the 435 reviews of Propecia cite many examples of depression, sexual dysfunction and shrunken penises.

One of the most visible faces for post-finasteride syndrome is 36-year-old UK resident Paul Innes. Previously healthy and a soccer player, Innes was so debilitated by his use of Propecia, prescribed by his doctor, he founded a web siteand has gone public. Appearing on This Morning last month, Innes describes how using Propecia for only three months on one occasion and three weeks on another produced a suicidal depression requiring hospitalization, sexual dysfunction and a reduction of the size of his reproductive anatomy, none of which went away when he ceased the drug. He and his former girlfriend, Hayley Waudby, described how the physical and emotional changes cost them their relationship, even though she was pregnant with his child.

In an email I asked Paul Innes if his health had improved after the ordeal. He wrote back, “My health is just the same if not worse since 2013. I am still impotent with a shrunken penis and still have very dark thoughts and currently having to take antidepressants just to get through every day. Prior to Propecia I was a very healthy guy but now I’m a shadow of my former self. I have only just managed to return to work in my role as a police officer since taking Propecia in March 2013.”