Linux Distribution Draws Ire Over Ad Integration
We all search our hard drive for things that inevitably aren't there. But what if, instead of coming up empty-handed, you were given the option of purchasing your query?
That's exactly what Ubuntu, a popular distribution, or variant, of the Linux operating system, has started to do.
With its latest update for its Unity tablet-friendly desktop, Canonical, Ubuntu's owner, has introduced Dash, an interface with an integrated Amazon search engine baked right into the OS.
Now, when users search for a photo of "shoes," they may see ads for actual shoes. Searching for a Microsoft "Office" document? Don't be surprised if an offer to purchase season five of "The Office" comes up with your results.
The new feature is touted as a convenience, but to critics it's a privacy risk that smudges the line between OS and adware.
"It's a major privacy problem if you can't find things on your own computer without broadcasting what you're looking for to the world," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's blog said, a sentiment that echoed many technology blogs.
In defense, Ubuntu creator Mark Shuttleworth said user anonymity is preserved because "we handle the query on your behalf."
That's true: Ubuntu uses secure HTTPS connections to connect to "productsearch.ubuntu.com." But when results are returned, that security is gone. No one likes to be advertised to.
Despite the creep factor, the biggest privacy concern, as the EFF points out, is the fact that Amazon's servers send results back to users without encryption, making it possible for someone to passively eavesdrop on a user's search traffic.
Users seem most upset by the decision to make participation in the tailored ad program mandatory. A legal notice states that simply by using Ubuntu, users agree to send their search queries and IP addresses to a number of third parties, including Facebook, Twitter and the BBC.
"Unity made me leave Ubuntu behind," commenter DeeZee wrote underneath a PCWorld article on the subject. "The same goes for dozens of people I encouraged to install Ubuntu over the years. I will no longer recommend this ugly and unfriendly interface."
Ubuntu users can avoid the ad integration by uninstalling "unity-lens-shopping" in the Ubuntu Software Center and clicking "remove."