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We tested a tool to confuse Google’s ad network. It works and you should use it.



We’ve all been there by now: surfing the web and bumping into ads with an uncanny flavor. How did they know I was thinking about joining a gym? Or changing careers? Or that I need a loan? You might wonder if Google can read your mind. Google even boasts that it knows you better than you know yourself.

Google can’t read your mind, of course. But it can read your search history. It tracks a lot of your web browsing, too. Google has an enormous amount of data about its users, and it uses that data to make an unimaginable amount of money from advertising: over $120 billion a year. The company runs a vast profiling machine, fitting people into categories that say who they are, what they’re worth, and how they’re expected to act. Google isn’t just organizing the world’s information; it’s sorting the world’s populations.

Many of the digital devices and platforms people use every day are built to make users transparent to the companies who want to predict, influence, and evaluate user behavior. This surveillance advertising has major social costs. Just for starters: it erodes privacy, perpetuates forms of discrimination, and siphons money away from the public-interest journalism that democracies need to survive. Lawmakers have not acted decisively to mitigate these costs.

Some activists, frustrated by the inability of regulators to effectively constrain Google’s actions, have taken matters into their own hands. Back in 2014, Daniel Howe, Mushon Zer-Aviv, and Helen Nissenbaum released a browser extension called AdNauseam that automatically clicks on web ads to interfere with behavioral tracking and profiling. Nissenbaum heads a research group at Cornell Tech, which I’m a part of.

AdNauseam is a tool of obfuscation. Obfuscation tactics are a sort of guerrilla warfare approach to the lack of privacy protections. Since it’s not possible to hide from Google’s surveillance, these tactics introduce inaccurate or excessive information to confuse and ultimately sabotage it.

This isn’t a new idea. As Nissenbaum wrote with Finn Brunton in a 2019 essay, “We are surrounded by examples of obfuscation that we do not yet think of under that name.” It can be something as simple as adding extra items to a shopping cart at the pharmacy to distract from something that might bring unwanted judgement. The Tor browser, which aggregates users’ web traffic so that no individual stands out, is perhaps one of the most successful examples of systematic obfuscation.

AdNauseam is like conventional ad-blocking software, but with an extra layer. Instead of just removing ads when the user browses a website, it also automatically clicks on them. By making it appear as if the user is interested in everything, AdNauseam makes it hard for observers to construct a profile of that person. It’s like jamming radar by flooding it with false signals. And it’s adjustable. Users can choose to trust privacy-respecting advertisers while jamming others. They can also choose whether to automatically click on all the ads on a given website or only some percentage of them.

We wanted to try to understand what’s going on inside the black box of Google’s incredibly lucrative advertising sales platforms in a way that nobody else outside the company had ever done.

Google, unsurprisingly, does not like AdNauseam. In 2017, it banned the extension from its Chrome Web Store. After Nissenbaum gave a lecture on AdNauseam in 2019 at the University of California, Berkeley, skeptics in the crowd, including Google employees, dismissed her effort. Google’s algorithms would, they said, easily detect and reject the illegitimate clicks—AdNauseam would be no match for Google’s sophisticated defenses.

Nissenbaum took this as a challenge. She began a research effort, which I later joined, to test whether AdNauseam works as designed. We would publish a website and buy ads on the same site on a “cost-per-click” basis—meaning the advertiser pays each time a user clicks on the ad—so we could see whether the clicks generated by AdNauseam were credited to the publisher and billed to the advertiser.

Our testing established that AdNauseam does indeed work, most of the time. But as the experiment developed, it became about more than settling this narrow question. We wanted to try to understand what’s going on inside the black box of Google’s incredibly lucrative advertising sales platforms in a way that nobody else outside the company had ever done.

The first step in the experiment involved setting up a website and an AdSense account. Google AdSense is a sales service for small publishers who don’t have the wherewithal to attract advertisers on their own. For a 32% commission, Google handles the whole process of monetizing a website’s traffic: it sells the ads, counts impressions and clicks, collects and makes payments, and keeps a lookout for fraud. If the skeptics at Nissenbaum’s talk were right, we reasoned, AdSense should smell something fishy with AdNauseam clicks and toss them back overboard.

Next, we created a campaign to advertise on the site using Google Ads, the service that buys inventory for advertisers. Google Ads is to advertisers what AdSense is to publishers. Small advertisers tell Google what sorts of people they’d like to reach and how much they’re willing to pay, and then Google finds those people as they browse a range of sites. In this case, the campaign was set up to run only on our site and to outbid any competing advertisers. We set it up this way because we wanted to be careful not to profit from it or draw unknowing bystanders into our experiment.

Positioned now on both sides of an advertising transaction, we were ready to observe the life cycle of an ad click from end to end. We invited individual volunteers to download AdNauseam and visit our site. Soon we had recorded a few dozen successful AdNauseam clicks—billed to our team’s advertiser account and credited to the publisher account. AdNauseam was working.

But this only proved that Google did not discard the very first click on an ad generated by a brand new AdNauseam user recruited specifically for the experiment. To silence the skeptics, we needed to test whether Google would learn to recognize suspicious clicking over time.

So we ran the experiment with peoplewho had already been using AdNauseam for some time. To anyone watching for very long, these users stick out like a sore thumb, because with AdNauseam’s default settings they appear to be clicking on 100% of the ads they see. Users can adjust the click rate, but even at 10%, they’d be way outside the norm; most people click display ads only a fraction of 1% of the time. This test, then, was designed to check if Google would disregard AdNauseam clicks from a browser with a long-standing record of astronomical click rates. If Google’s machine learning systems are so clever, they should have no trouble with that task.

ads clicked
An image of the AdNauseam “ad vault” collected by the automated Selenium browser.

We tested this in two ways.

First, with people: we recruited long-standing AdNauseam users to go to our website. We also invited new AdNauseam users to use the clicking software for a week in the course of their normal web browsing, in order to establish a history, and then to participate in the test.

Second, with software: we conducted an automated test using a software tool called Selenium, which simulates human browsing behavior. Using Selenium, we directed a browser equipped with AdNauseam to automatically surf the web, navigating across sites and pages, pausing, scrolling, and clicking ads along the way. Basically, this let us quickly build up a record of prolific clicking activity while tightly controlling variables that might be relevant to whether or not Google classifies as a click as “authentic.” We set up four of these automated browsers and ran them respectively for one, two, three, and seven days. At the end of each period, we sent the browsers to our experimental site to see whether AdSense accepted their clicks as legitimate. The Selenium browser that ran for seven days, for example, clicked on more than 900 Google ads, and almost 1,200 ads in all. If Google’s systems are indeed sensitive to suspicious clicking behavior, this should have set off alarm bells.

Most of our tests were successful. Google filtered out clicks on our site by the automated browser that ran for three days. But it did not filter out the vast majority of the other clicks, either by ordinary AdNauseam users or even in the higher-volume automated tests, where browsers were clicking upwards of 100 Google ads per day. In short, Google’s advanced defenses were not sensitive to the sort of clicking behavior typical of AdNauseam use.

Google’s advanced defenses were not sensitive to the sort of clicking behavior typical of AdNauseam use.

Soon we had $100 in our AdSense account, enough to trigger Google to mail us a check. We weren’t sure what to do with it. This money wasn’t ill-gotten, by any means. We were just getting back our own money that we had invested in the advertiser account—less the 32% cut banked by Google.We decided not to cash the check. It was enough to know we’d proved that—for now, at least—AdNauseam works. The check was like a certificate of success.

Nevertheless, our experiment can’t answer some other important questions. If you use AdNauseam, how do the clicks it makes affect the profile Google has built on you? Does AdNauseam successfully shield individuals, and the populations they may be sorted into, from being targeted for advertising? (After all, even if you use the extension, Google can still collect masses of data from your email, search history, and other sources.) Even answering our simple original question—whether the software works at all—required substantial effort. Answering those other questions would require insider access across many more nodes in online advertising.

In fact, we can’t even know conclusively why our test worked—why Google did not detect these AdNauseam clicks. Was it a failure of skill or a failure of will?

A failure of skill would mean that Google’s defenses against automated ad-clicking are less sophisticated than the company claims. However, as flattering as it would be to conclude that our small team outmaneuvered one of the most powerful companies in history, that seems farfetched.

A more likely explanation is a failure of will. Google makes money each time an ad is clicked. If advertisers found out they were being billed for phony clicks, that would of course undermine confidence in the online ad business. But advertisers can’t validate those suspicions unless they can look from both ends of the market, as we did. And even if they could, Google’s market dominance makes it hard for them to take their business elsewhere.

In a statement, Google spokeswoman Leslie Pitterson wrote, “We detect and filter the vast majority of this automated fake activity. Drawing conclusions from a small-scale experiment is not representative of Google’s advanced invalid traffic detection methods and the ongoing work of our dedicated technology, policy, and operations teams that work to combat ad fraud every day.” She added, “We invest heavily in detecting invalid traffic—including automated traffic from extensions such as AdNauseum [sic]—to protect users, advertisers, and publishers, as ad fraud hurts everyone in the ecosystem, including Google.”

AdNauseam might adapt to skirt Google’s counteroffensive, but an arms race will obviously favor Google.

If, contrary to Pitterson’s claims, the results of our experiment do hold up at scale, it may be bad news for advertisers, but it’s good news for internet users. It means that AdNauseam is one of the few tools ordinary people currently have at their disposal to guard against invasive profiling.

All the same, it is a temporary and imperfect defense. If Google finds a way—or the will—to neutralize AdNauseam, then whatever utility it has might be short-lived. AdNauseam might adapt to skirt Google’s counteroffensive, but an arms race will obviously favor Google.

Governments and regulators have generally failed to either craft or enforce rules preventing commercial surveillance. It’s true that some recent laws, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act, have somewhat limited companies’ abilities to sell or share personal data to third parties. However, these laws don’t constrain Google’s ability to be a first-party observer to lots of internet activity and many advertising transactions. In fact, Google may benefit from these privacy laws, since they limit the ability of rivals and customers to acquire the data it has gained. Google keeps watching, and advertisers get more dependent on what it knows.

AdNauseam doesn’t stop Google from doing this, but it does let individuals protest against these cycles of surveillance and behavioral targeting that have made much of the online world into a privacy nightmare. Obfuscation is an act of resistance that serves to undermine confidence in tracking and targeting, and to erode the value of data profiles, in the hope that advertisers and ad tech companies might begin to find it impractical and unprofitable to spy on people. Anyone who wants a less invasive online advertising business can give AdNauseam a try.

Another important benefit of using AdNauseam is that, to the extent it succeeds at obfuscation, it helps protect the privacy of everyone, not just the people using it. This is because personal information is not strictly personal; information about me can feed into inferences about people I associate with or people who share something in common with me. If you and I go to the same websites, marketers might use what they know about me to make a judgment about you, perhaps labeling you as valuable, risky, or likely to click on one ad or another. AdNauseam users, by disguising their own preferences, make it harder for Google to profile and evaluate other people in their orbits. And so the profiling and prediction engines of surveillance advertising become less reliable.

But, in some ways, the skeptics are right: a few programmers and researchers can’t go toe-to-toe with technological titans. Obfuscation is no substitute for an organized and energetic movement, backed by the force of law, to counteract the surveillance advertising that governs so much of the internet. Thankfully, some governments are filing antitrust suits against Google and Facebook, launching investigations into companies’ data practices, issuing fines for transgressions, and working on potentially stronger privacy protections. But for now, guerrilla tactics like AdNauseam are the weapons we’ve got.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace



Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem



When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation



E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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