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Ubuntu 12.10 Amazon Search Triggers Wave of Protest for Privacy Concerns

The upcoming version of the highly-popular Linux distribution Ubuntu 12.10 has already sparked a wave of protest with the addition of a new Amazon shopping lens that blends local search results with Amazon product recommendations.

Lenses were introduced in mid-2010, when the Unity user interface became part of Ubuntu, and they allow a user to expand the Dash search functionality. Shortly put, the user only has to press the “Super” key, type in what they want and the system outputs the matching application names. However, as of the pre-release version of Ubuntu 12.10, these search results also aggregate information from Amazon under the “More Suggestions” section.

Although users complain that local searches would get reported to Amazon, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth published a blog post to clear up the issue. According to Shuttleworth, the Amazon search results will not even be monetized by Canonical, the company that makes and supports Ubuntu. They will be used just to enhance the user experience and allow them to expand their search on the web.

“Note – these are not ads, they are results to your search. We don’t promote any product or service speculatively, these are not banners or spyware,” Shuttleworth mentioned. “These are results from underlying scopes, surfaced to the Home lens, because you didn’t narrow the scope to a specific, well scope.”

As of Ubuntu 12.10, users can also specify whether they want to perform a local or global search by pressing the Super + F or Super + A keys. However, since many users have already grown accustomed to just pressing the Super key, they are likely to receive these web-based recommendations by default. The alternative is running the “sudo apt-get remove unity-lens-shopping” command in Terminal, which would uninstall the shopping lens completely.

Shuttleworth also said these results are not pulled directly from Amazon, but rather proxied and filtered by the Canonical servers, so Amazon cannot identify and associate searches with users, for instance.

“We are not telling Amazon what you are searching for. Your anonymity is preserved because we handle the query on your behalf,” the Ubuntu founder wrote. However, a minor danger still lurks at the network perimeter, as these searches are not encrypted and a sniffer could learn about what you’re searching for locally, then use this information in more sophisticated, targeted attacks.

About the author


Bogdan Botezatu is living his second childhood at Bitdefender as senior e-threat analyst. When he is not documenting sophisticated strains of malware or writing removal tools, he teaches extreme sports such as surfing the web without protection or rodeo with wild Trojan horses. He believes that most things in life can be beat with strong heuristics and that antimalware research is like working for a secret agency: you need to stay focused at all times, but you get all the glory when you catch the bad guys.