Dark Patterns: The Ways Websites Trick Us Into Giving Up Our Privacy

Dark Patterns: The Ways Websites Trick Us Into Giving Up Our Privacy

Open up a web browser or power up a smartphone—pretty much essential for modern-day living—and you’re walking straight into a privacy minefield. That much you know. Especially after the news earlier this week that Unroll.me, a popular service that lets you unsubscribe from multiple email lists with a single click, was selling data it had mined from all your mail. What you might not realize is that your surrendering of your privacy isn’t just an accident—it’s the purposeful design of a particular breed of app makers and web designers employing a practice known as “dark patterns.”

What are Dark Patterns?

The practice of using interface design, social engineering, and other tricks to funnel users in a particular direction has come to be known as “dark patterns”, a concept even has its own website, complete with a hall of shame featuring some alarming examples.

We’re talking about bonus purchases that appear by default in your shopping basket (a trick now illegal in the EU), confusing mixes of opt-in and opt-out check boxes when you sign up for services, and other forms of misdirection on the web and in apps. Before you know it, you’ve agreed to share your location for the next 40 years or upgraded your plane ticket on accident.

User Experience consultant Harry Brignull set up darkpatterns.org, and coined the phrase dark patterns itself, to try and highlight—and stop—this kind of sleight-of-hand.

“It started with one lone example—a low cost airline that was using a shady technique to trick users into buying insurance with their flights,” Brignull told Gizmodo. “I came up with this idea that by giving them a catchy name and publicizing them, it will help consumer awareness and deter companies from using them.”

Brignull points to two particularly pertinent types of dark pattern on the modern web: Friend Spam and Privacy Zuckering (yes, named after serial offender Facebook’s founder). You’ve probably come across both in the past.

Friend Spam

With Friend Spam, you’re asked to give access to your contacts list, ostensibly for your own benefit—to find friends you might know on a particular service. But what actually happens, most of the time, is your friends get spammed with invitations to join whatever new instant messenger you’re testing out.

It’s an underhand tactic—and LinkedIn’s attempt at one version of it ending up costing it in the region of $13 million. You’ll find some version of it (often less aggressive) used by almost every social media company, including Facebook and Twitter. There’s no way to…

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