Chatbots are something that had the potential to be quite useful but generally failed miserably. I came across one when I needed to ask a relatively easy question about house insurance. No online chart and the FAQ, that historically useful thing back in the 1990’s, led to the chatbot.

The conversation went something like this…

Me: does my insurance cover xxx

Chatbot: did you mean yyy

Me: Yes

Chatbot: I have no information about yyy, shall I connect you to an advisor?

Me: Yes

Chatbot: For an adviser, call nnnnnnnn.

Me: close window in a huff!

Two things should leap off the screen here. First, why on earth suggest yyy if it has no information about yyy anyway? Second, don’t tell me to phone an advisor after suggesting you connect me to one. Come on… this is singularly useless.

Smart TV and ads

Ad blockers work well on PCs and other things, smartphones included. But what about your TV?

Recently our Samsung SmartTV had a software update and now it is displaying rather infuriating adverts in the TV guide. It has shown ads before in the list of apps and things but not in the guide. And in a glaring pink too so it really stands out.

I’ve tried blocking certain URLs – web searches suggest this as a solution – but that has not worked. I have been into the privacy settings too, to no avail. On that particular subject, the privacy settings on the TV are set in a way to trip you up in my opinion. You can de-select advertising partners one by one (they are all on by default and there is no global turn-off option) but if you stray outside the box or click the wrong thing the whole process is abandoned. And on entry to the options ‘Allow all’ is preselected. there are hundreds of advertising partners too.

Consent is confusing as well. The list seems to suggest that I have consented but on entry I can then consent, the unticked box presumably meaning I did not – and I would never have had anyway!

I think this particular TV needs connecting via a pi-hole… or at least something that I can run wireshark on. It’s not a cheap TV and I really do not expect to have advertising forced on me.

How do you prove your address?

Leeds council are to start charging non-Leeds residents to access Kirkstall Abbey. For residents, who will still get in for free, proof of address is required. So how do you prove your address?

One obvious way is by bringing a council tax bill, but that is in the name of the householder, not the entire family. Bank statements would do, provided you have a bank account and paper (or downloaded and printed) statements.

But surely they also need to prove who you are and that your name matches that on whatever proof you bring. That could be interesting. Without proof of name one could simply print, or fake a council tax bill, bank statement or whatever regardless of whether or not it is yours.

I cam imagine a shady looking individual standing near the entrance whispering ‘Psssst… want to buy a fake council tax bill? Only £1’…

But I am sure the council has thought this through, including how much it will cost to fence the site off, erect ticket barriers or booths and staff them all year round…

Facebook tracking

If I ever needed proof of the spread of Facebook tracking activities (I didn’t, I am well aware of it!) I recently checked prices of mobile phone 30-day contracts. When I did this, first I was not logged into Facebook on the Mac where I was browsing, I used Brave, and a private window. The next day Facebook, which I only use on the phone via the app constantly throws no-contract or 30-day contract mobile phone adverts at me.

This is somewhat unexpected, especially given the steps I took to keep away from their trackers. I use DuckDuckGo for searching and close Brave down regularly. I run an app that zaps cookies as well unless they are whitelisted.

How not to communicate

We seem to be taking ever backward steps regarding communications these days. I’m not talking in general, but in website terms. Many times you see an offering of an online chat only to fill in your details and then be told the service is closed. Say it first! Email enquiries, assuming you can find them often also often go unanswered, or, worse you get an auto reply saying the service is no more.

Communication companies tend to be the worse, insisting you phone them regardless of them offering email, twitter or online chat services.

Phone services are no better. I had to call the GP and, after about 2 minutes of listening to announcements and finding the correct option I am told that the particular option is only available at certain hours. Say so first!

Examples where it goes right, surprisingly include the DVLA. I recently had to contact them and their online chat required lots of information up front and then told me there were no advisors anyway. But an email to them was answered within about an hour. Others include an online pharmacy / prescription service which said up front when their advisors were online and I only wanted a minute.

But the times it works pale into insignificance when posed against those that fail miserably or seem only aimed to confusion or annoyance.

Good grief. If you bother to set up such a service make sure you actually use it, or close it down.

Cookie annoyances

Here’s a thought. Websites that throw up a cookie popup demanding you deselect, or at least look at several categories and then save those settings ought to have some feedback mechanism (I’m thinking email to the CEO…) and a button marked ‘leaving website – do not agree with infernal use of cookies’ that triggers the email.

Of course one could assume that their marketing team would look to analytics to determine how many people see the cookie notice and never go any further. But where that relies on Google Analytics rather than good old logfile analysis they would see no results. Perhaps they do, and see that everything is apparently roses, having completely missed the point!!

Yup, more cookies…

A well known supermarket-attached clothing website has a privacy notice apparently powered by OneTrust. It gives the usual cookie choices where one can deny certain classes of cookie. On the positive side of things the selections are off by default. Good. But that’s where the positive ends…

Certain cookie classes cannot be switched off – they are ‘always active’. These include data which:

  • can be used to monitor for and prevent fraudulent activity, and ensure systems and processes work properly and securely.
  • Your device can receive and send information that allows you to see and interact with ads and content.
  • can be combined with offline data sources in support of one or more purposes
  • can be used to distinguish your device from other devices based on information it automatically sends, such as IP address or browser type.

Now ok I’ve lumped them all together as displayed and not all are definitely evil at first glance. But let’s tease the evil out a little…

Monitoring for the prevention of fraud is fine but it is not saying how. Does it mean that my data will be sent somewhere for fraud checks? Now, that may still be acceptable but it really needs to say.

Sending and receiving information for advertising purposes. Ok, this is a big no. They can’t do that with no way to switch it off, no matter how much they want to.

Cookies used for this can never be classed as strictly necessary. Combining my data with offline sources – again, what on earth is their plan here, tell me. The same goes for distinguishing my device from others. Do they even know how most home broadband routers work? Are they going further than just the IP address, which would be common across a household, or are they suggesting browser profiling? If the latter, stop it.

In any event I browse this particular vendor in private mode with my cookie cruncher running so good luck with that!

To be private, or not

I just came across a booking website which clearly states that personal information is never shared, that I do not need to make an account or download an app in order to book, and that my bank details are invisible to the site in question. Great claims. Unfortunately the same site also has a cookie stripe at the bottom telling me they use cookies with no way to find out what they are or what the are used for, and no way to do anything other than accept!

More cookie madness

I came across a website a couple of days ago that has the usual, rather useless cookie notice generated as the site claims several times by some random cookie policy generator. Ok so it has the usual three options, accept, decline, or see more information. But I was rather surprised that clocking ‘decline’ threw me to Google which then wanted me to agree to it’s cookies. Not a good start. On further analysis, the ‘decline’ button URL is…! Big fail.

The cookie notice itself is the usual waffle and on the positive side, if there is one, it does tell you all the evil it committing. In one section it does state that the third party cookie being set lasts forever and is used to track your cross the whole of the web. Of course, it has set all the cookies before you even agree. Fail number 2.

In all the site sets 32 cookies, 8 of which are third party; and it causes your browser to make over 200 requests to nearly 60 different IP addresses.

And the cookie policy generator they used? It has a short disclaimer basically saying they’ve no real idea what they are doing and only provide the generated cookie notice for informational purposes. Ugh.

WhatsApp and privacy notices

I noticed that when I opened WhatsApp on the phone a message appeared at the top indicating there was some information to review regarding privacy. Ok, I’ll bite…

Clicking on it took me to some information which was immediately hidden behind a cookie notice with two options, agree or manage. I chose manage. That resulted in a page telling me cookies would be used and some functionality might not work without. Ok so far. But seriously missing was any information telling me what cookies would be set or what they were for, how long they would last etc. And again, the only option was to agree.

Being unable to leave that page without agreeing I closed the app thinking that on re-opening it I would once again have the message regarding privacy. But no, the message is no more.

I do hope that WhatsApp or Meta or whoever do not take me closing the app without agreeing to be an agreement.

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