Privacy is hard. Lets go shopping!
It is possible that you have read some stuff about the Ubuntu shopping lens recently. Unity and lenses are pretty cool, it kind of gives one place to search for all kinds of stuff, and you plug in additional search engines to throw your query at. So you might search for a word and find an application, some local files, some wikipedia articles, a file in a document management system and some products on Amazon that relate to your search terms. A kind of super dooper omni-global search for things as well as web pages. Some people are concerned that searching for things means you have to send your search terms about all over the place, you can’t truly anonymously just search for stuff, you have to tell these various search engines what you are looking for – and if you are using an omni-global super search that means that search terms might go to inappropriate places.
Imagine you are searching for your socks, this is like looking in a drawer that normally contains socks and at the same time phoning up all your friends and asking them if they have seen your socks anywhere. This is not ideal and when people started noticing this (after about a year of it having this behaviour – people only noticed when there was obvious money involved) a switch was added to “implement privacy”. It was a rush job, nobody is arguing with that, and it satisfied most people at first glance. There is now a switch in the privacy controls that can be flipped to turn off online searches. Sounds good right? Well diving a little deeper this just sets a flag, and the individual search scopes (the things that put results in the lenses) have to be modified to check for that flag and not go searching. To stretch our sock analogy this is like contacting each of your friends individually and saying “when I set this flag, and phone you, please just hang up on me”. If you acquire a new friend you have to remember to tell them this important condition of friendship.
Now if you want to ask each of your friends “have you got my Justin Beiber CD?” you have a problem, because they will just hang up on you. So you have to unflip the flag to perform that search – your friends are entirely useless with the flag set because they will just hang up on you – or they will ignore the flag and might end up spying on your morning sock related searches if you accidentally phone them. You do still have the option of doing a focussed lens specific search rather than using the home lens omni-global everywhere search. Using lens specific searches you can “search in my sock drawer” or “ask that friend if they have seen my socks” without other friends finding out about your sock related issues.
A lot of people got hung up over whether the shopping lens should be opt in or opt out. This is a bogus thing to get hung up about, the problem isn’t the default setting, the problem is that it isn’t granular enough. Lets say you install the shopping lens and opt-in to online searches. Awesome, you can now have lots of fun purchasing toasters and shoes and better CDs than that Justin Beiber one that you lent to someone or other. Now lets say you install the rather fine Google Docs lens you would expect that to be opt-in too right? Well, bit late, sorry you opted in to online searches already and there is no more fine grained control (as it happens the Google Docs lens is one of those friends that doesn’t know about your flag and it totally ignores it and picks up the phone).
So, there are issues, the developers know about them and they are a clever bunch, I am sure that they will come up with a more considered and comprehensive approach to this by the next version of Ubuntu. In the mean time I am not particularly comfortable writing lenses because they either have to depend on all other online search lenses being turned on, or they have to ignore the flag. Both options kind of suck, so I have been exploring other interesting things that are similar to lenses, one of which is the topic of my next post.