|©1971 Walt Kelly|
How many times have we been unwittingly tricked into "sharing" a seemingly innocent-looking quiz that boosts our self-esteem when we more than meet its challenge? "Only four percent will be able to name all 50 state capitals," its banner trumpets. "Can you name these Broadway musicals by these simple descriptions?" We've seen them. Taken them. And just as easily shared them on Facebook.
It's then that a small box will appear advising you that if you share this superb score that the application will be able to access your Facebook friends and gain access to information on your profile. So who could it harm, you reason? After all, don't you want everyone to know that you know that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota and not Pierre?
So, you hit that button and now your friends have been exposed to another dreaded social media disease. That's right. You've just infected your friends and family, who will be targeted for their data too. Nice going.
Every time we share a news story, we are tracked. The New York Times does it. The Washington Post does it. Even liberal thinking Rolling Stone Magazine. They all do it. There is information they embed into those links that allow them to mine your habits, likes and dislikes. So what to do?
Here is a simple way to prevent them from easily tracking your information. It's as easy as asking a question. Or more to the point. It's as easy as knowing a question mark. (What follows is the technical information. If you just want to know the reveal, skip ahead to *.)
All of these articles use basic hypertext markup language or what is commonly known as HTML. It's the language of the Internet and it's not going to go away anytime soon. The Internet defaults to headers that begin with "http://..." or, in those cases where additional security is implemented, "https://..." All browsers from Chrome to Firefox to EDGE know how to interpret these headers and convert the words into numbers and distill them into the binary language of computers, a series of zeroes and ones.
Uniform resource locators are known to computer users as URLs. They are used to find files on your local computers or by browsers to use the Internet to access files on faraway servers that know how to answer your requests. On a local computer the URL might look like this:
The URL knows it needs to access the C: drive and that the large folder of Users must first be accessed. Within Users is the Alan profile and the file in question is kept under the Documents folder. The slashes used between each segment allow the computer to refine its search.
On the Internet, though, backslashes are used to help browsers refine their searches. Take a look at this made up URL:
The first part of the URL lets the browser know it is using hypertext markup language rather than, say, a file sharing protocol like FTP (those start with "ftp://..."). The World Wide Web nomenclature is extraneous these days. Browsers are smart enough to know how to get to a website by the use of its FQDN or fully qualified domain name without the "www" portion. FQDNs are broken down into two parts - the hostname and the domain name.
Domain name servers or DNS information is not unlike a phone book. Rather than go into how it works, let's just state that top level domains (TLD) like .edu, .com or .net identify large groups of servers that constantly share and update information between each other. All universities use the TLD of .edu, for example. So, a computer from tulane.edu easily knows how to reach a server at yale.edu and vice versa. The TLD might be considered a surname. All the other information before it could be considered a first or middle name to identify it further.
*If you've kept up with me so far, it's now time for the big reveal. In the example above, the first part of the URL has all of the information needed to share that article on Facebook:
Beginning with the "?," all of the other information is used for tracking and is superfluous. I have been sharing articles on Facebook for years by copying the link UP TO the ? and leaving off that trail of tracking code. Perhaps you might consider doing this.
Also, if you enjoy taking quizzes, let people know your score without sharing it through the application. It's as easy as taking a screenshot and sharing that. (Just don't click that "Share your results" button.)
If you don't know how to take a screenshot, the ways are varied, but simple enough. On a Windows computer, just click the PrtScn button and paste it into a program like Word (or for those older computers Paint). On a Mac computer, use the Command-Shift-3 keys and it will copy to your Desktop. On an iPhone 8 or earlier, briefly click the top right button (used to power on the device) and the Home button at the bottom. Androids take screenshots by holding the volume down and power buttons at once.
By sharing the screenshot, you can get your score out to your friends and family and they can marvel at what a whiz you are and how nice you are not to share their personal data and profile with these unseen entities who want to sell your likes, dislikes, political leanings, sexual preferences, etc. to other companies for their profit.