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Canonical Offers Kill Switch After Ubuntu Privacy Row

Canonical is to offer a kill switch to turn off online searches in Ubuntu Linux 12.10 following a privacy row

On by Tom Jowitt 0

Canonical has reacted quickly after a new online search feature in the Ubuntu Linux 12.10 distribution triggered privacy concerns.

The controversy started after a second beta version (Quantal Quetzal) of the Ubuntu Linux 12.10 distribution allowed for the integration of a user’s search queries – conducted through the Unity desktop Dash -  with Amazon search results.

Adware row

The so-called ‘shopping lens’ feature meant that a user’s search term was sent unencrypted (by default) to Amazon servers, so it could add its own search results to the query. This effectively meant that Amazon could add any hyperlinks it felt were relevant to that user’s particular search string.

For example, if a Linux user searched for a movie file on their system, the results could include a related DVD title for sale on Amazon. The idea was that Canonical would receive a small percentage share of any sales this process generated, which would in turn be used to support the Ubuntu project.

But the integration provoked a strong response from the open source community, some of whom felt that it was an invasion of privacy and was in effect nothing but adware.

Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon took note of the concerns and said that Canonical would offer a partial kill switch. This came after he had promised earlier in the week that any searches sent to Amazon would be encrypted in the future.

But the offer of a kill switch comes with a very big catch, which was revealed in Bacon’s latest blog posting on the matter.

“You will be able to disable the feature if you wish,” wrote Bacon. “There is work going on to have a toggle switch in the settings to disable it. Note that this will affect all online searches (e.g. Gwibber).”

This last point is pretty important, as it means that the kill switch will not only stop the user from receiving commercial search results from Amazon, but will also remove all other online results from the search.

Switch overkill?

Canonical for its part is hoping that the change will mollify the anger felt by some users, but its handling over the Amazon adware issue seems to have left a sour taste in the mouths of some open source enthusiasts, judging by the comments left on Bacon’s blog posting.

“In my mind, this fiasco has seriously compromised the integrity of Canonical as a steward of Ubuntu,” wrote ‘veryannonyed’. “Little to no community involvement before trying to push this through, privacy concerns addressed really late in this cycle…”

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Tom Jowitt

Author: Tom Jowitt

Freelance TechWeek Reporter
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