Tally Saves the Internet – and Your Privacy
It’s worse than you thought. Web trackers don’t just hoover up your personal data. They auction it off to vendors whose algorithms bid for the right to push you toward an impulse buy.
The holidays are, Dickens might write, harvest time for the web retailers.
Two Davidson College professors not only figured out how to fight back, they built a game you play to do it. The game completes three easy tips they offer to get through the holidays with your privacy somewhat intact.
The less data companies have on you, the less likely they’ll be able to convince you to buy something you don’t need, say Professors Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy. In their work, Dietrick, who is the Keiser Family Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Studies, and Mundy, an associate professor of the practice in digital studies, explore the human side of tech and create games for change.
Their latest brainchild, Tally Saves the Internet, is a multi-player game that blocks data trackers and educates players about data privacy.
Dietrick and Mundy’s interest in dataveillance, the practice of monitoring and collecting online data, grew out of Mundy’s experiences in the U.S. Navy, where he unloaded surveillance film from jets on an aircraft carrier.
Mundy says surveillance practices with military origins are now the default business practice for most of Silicon Valley. Advertisers deploy more and more sophisticated tools each day that silently collect data, analyze it and target users. Amazon may know us even better than we know ourselves. Data scientists at Facebook have proven they can change our moods at their whim, while research at the Cambridge Psychometrics Center can predict our gender, political persuasion, and sexual orientation with only a few data points from our actions on social media.
“Advertisers understand that stress can equate to lack of control over spending and impaired decision making,” Dietrick says. “And they use our data and tricks from behavioral psychology against us to manufacture desire for things we don’t need.”
Tally, the culmination of a multi-year collaboration between Mundy and Dietrick, made its beta debut in August. Dietrick and Mundy showcased the game in October at the Immersive Scholar Symposium hosted by North Carolina State University. The team received grant funding from Davidson College and other organizations, among them the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity, to engage students in aspects of the project, including game design, music and sound effects, and animation.
Tally rounds out three useful steps that Dietrick and Mundy offer for getting what you want this holiday season, without buying a Snuggie on a whim or compromising your privacy.
Download an Adblocker
Ad blockers are your first line of defense against manipulative technologies. Browser extensions like AdBlockPlus stop ads from appearing on pages you visit, and therefore makes pages load faster because they don’t have to download additional images and resources. Other plugins, like Disconnect or Ghostery, are full-blown tracker blocking tools that stop companies from collecting your data and using it against you.
Try a New Web Browser
Did you know there is another version of Google Chrome that doesn’t track you by default? Check out Brave Browser. Built on the same Chromium engine, Brave “stops online surveillance, loads content faster, and uses 35 percent less battery.” Mozilla’s Firefox browser also has tracker-blocking enabled automatically, to help you use the internet without feeling constantly coerced.
Play Tally Saves the Internet
You don’t have much free time, so Tally Saves the Internet makes blocking trackers fun and runs effortlessly while you work. A winner of the UC Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity Arts Contest, Tally is a browser extension and multiplayer game that allows you to see yourself as the advertisers see you. When you play Tally Saves the Internet, a pink blob named “Tally” hangs out in the corner of your screen to keep you company and warn you about data trackers.
If Tally detects a data tracker, she changes to yellow, then orange and red. When Tally’s red, she’s found a product monster that tries to put you in a marketing category. If you click on the monster, you battle it Pokemon-Go style, and if you win, you block that tracker from future searches. Filled with speech bubbles about dataveillance, she also teaches you (and your kids!) about dark patterns and other ways you can be coerced online.
Tally isn’t just a game about the problems on the internet. Every time you beat a product monster, the game actually blocks that tracker from collecting your data. The less data companies have on you, the less likely they’ll be able to convince you to buy something you don’t need so you can focus on what’s most important this holiday season.