October 2006

Snooping search terms from the browser cache with JavaScript

SPI Dynamics has an interesting proof-of-concept page that can snoop your browser’s cache of visited URLs and figure out whether you’ve searched for specific terms on Google. Or rather, I assume it can on some people’s computers… for some reason it always returns “yup, you searched for that” on both Firefox and Safari on my Mac.

Regardless, it’s an interesting attack. It’s based on the fact that your browser changes the color of links you’ve already visited, and sites can determine which style the browser has applied to a link using JavaScript and CSS, thus determining whether a particular URL has been visited or not. This basic concept was described by Jeremiah Grossman’s history extractor at Black Hat his year. SPI Dynamics takes it one step further by probing for the URL corresponding to a set of query terms on the popular search sites. They can’t just get a list of all your searches, but they could in theory troll for a list of interesting search terms, be they names of competing products, porn sites, common illnesses, etc. and then modify the page being displayed based on that information. (Via Google Blogoscoped.)

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Spam, spam, spam, beaked beans, spam, spam…

According to this graph of spam volume by spam blacklister TQMcube, spam volume has increased more than tenfold in the past six months. I’m not sure if this is some kind of attempt to overwhelm spam-filters and blacklisting services or just another ratcheting up, but I do find it disheartening that doing a news search for “major increase in spam” results in posts and news reports that span several years. (Thanks to Jeff for the link to the graph.)


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Where am I?

Radio Lab had a great hour production called Where Am I?, all about how mind and body collaborate to determine where you and all your assorted parts are in space and how that can sometimes get out of whack. Audio is available for streaming and download, and well worth the listen.

It reminds me of the “That’s my hand!” illusion, where you can give someone the uncanny feeling that an obviously-plastic severed rubber hand is actually their own by simply hiding their real hand from view and then simultaneously touching each hand in the same spot at the same time. After about 20 seconds of such touching the illusion kicks in, and is a wonderfully eerie feeling. They have a station for trying this out at the SF Exploratorium, but my first introduction to it was from reading a recent study where scientists induced the illusion while the subject was being scanned by an MRI. What they found was that the illusion corresponds with activity in the premotor cortex, a part of the brain that receives input both visual and touch information, implying that we build our idea of where different parts of our body is in space by correlating our own sense of touch with what we can detect with our other senses. (They also have a more recent study showing that it’s not just vision combined with touch — you can get the same effect bindfolded by making the subject think she’s touching her left hand with her right when actually she’s touching the rubber hand.)

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Another reason to not let your toddler watch TV?

Economics professors at Cornell and Indiana U. have found a possible correlation between watching TV before the age of three and autism. The evidence looks even more circumstantial than the study linking early TV viewing to ADHD, but still interesting: really what they’ve found is a correlation between diagnosis of autism and the number of rainy days in a particular county for a given period, which is known to correlate with hours kids spend watching TV. I wonder if they also looked at birth month and whether that has an effect — if it did that might imply a critical period of only a few months. (Thanks to Andrea for the link.)

Update 3:30pm: Here’s the actual study. Plus, Steven Levitt offers some skepticism at the Freakonomics blog. (Thanks to Judith for the links.)

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Reuters opens Second Life bureau

A few days ago Reuters opened a bureau in Second Life, the online virtual world that’s more second home than game to some 400,000 (presumably part-time) residents. Adam Pasick is bureau chief and sole reporter, and is dedicated fulltime to Second Life. As science fiction writer Charlie Strauss put it a month ago, “Truth stranger than fiction? Must write faster, the clowns are gaining …” (Via NPR’s Marketplace.)

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