Cross-Correlation Makes Quick Work Of Ads

Once relegated to the proverbial Linux loving Firefox user, ad blocking has moved into public view among increased awareness of privacy and the mechanisms of advertising on the internet. At the annual family gathering, when That Relative asks how to setup their new laptop, we struggle through a dissertation on the value of ad blockers and convince them to install one. But what about mediums besides the internet? Decades ago Tivo gave us one button to jump through recorded TV. How about the radio? If available, satellite radio may be free of The Hated Advertisement. But terrestrial radio and online streams? [tomek] wasn’t satisfied with an otherwise sublime experience listening streaming Polish Radio Three and decided to build a desktop tool to detect and elide ads from the live audio stream.

[tomek] was aware of this hip knowledge domain called Digital Signal Processing but hadn’t done any of it themselves. Like many algorithmic problems the first step was to figure out the fastest way to bolt together a prototype to prove a given technique worked. We were as surprised as [tomek] by how simple this turned out to be. Fundamentally it required a single function – cross-correlation – to measure the similarity of two data samples (audio files in this case). And it turns out that Octave provides it in the box. After snipping the start-of-ad jingle out of a sample file and comparing it to a radio program [tomek] got the graph at the left. The conspicuous spike is the location of the jingle in the audio file.

At this point all that was left was packaging it all into a one click tool to listen to the radio without loading an entire analysis package. Conveniently Octave is open source software, so [tomek] was able to dig through its sources until they found the bones of the critical xcorr() function. [tomek] adapted their code to pour the audio into a circular buffer in order to use an existing Java FFT library, and the magic was done. Piping the stream out of ffmpeg and into the ad detector yielded events when the given ad jingle samples were detected.

[tomek] packaged that tool into a standalone executable, but the gem here is the followup post. After removing ads in the online stream they adapted a RaspberryPi to listen to an FM receiver and remote control their Yamaha tuner over the network. So when the tuner is playing Radio Three the Pi notices and ducks the audio appropriately to avoid those pesky ads. Video of this after the break.

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Using Facebook Ads To Prank Your Friends

Most tech savvy individuals are well aware of the vast amounts of data that social networking companies collect on us. Some take steps to avoid this data collection, others consider it a trade-off for using free tools to stay in touch with friends and family. Sometimes these ads can get a bit… creepy. Have you ever noticed an ad in the sidebar and thought to yourself, “I just searched for that…” It can be rather unsettling.

[Brian] was looking for ways to get back at his new roommate in retaliation of prank that was pulled at [Brian’s] expense. [Brian] is no novice to Internet marketing. One day, he realized that he could create a Facebook ad group with only one member. Playing off of his roommate’s natural paranoia, he decided to serve up some of the most eerily targeted Facebook ads ever seen.

Creating extremely targeted ads without giving away the prank is trickier than you might think. The ad can’t be targeted solely for one person. It needs to be targeted to something that seems like a legitimate niche market, albeit a strange one. [Brian’s] roommate happens to be a professional sword swallower (seriously). He also happens to ironically have a difficult time swallowing pills. naturally, [Brian] created an ad directed specifically towards that market.

Sword Swallowing Ad

The roommate thought this was a bit creepy, but mostly humorous. Slowly over the course of three weeks, [Brian] served more and more ads. Each one was more targeted than the last. He almost gave himself away at one point, but he managed to salvage the prank. Meanwhile, the roommate grew more and more paranoid. He started to think that perhaps Facebook was actually listening in on his phone calls. How else could they have received some of this information? As a happy coincidence, all of this happened at the same time as the [Edward Snowden] leaks. Not only was the roommate now concerned about Facebook’s snooping, but he also had the NSA to worry about.

Eventually, [Brian] turned himself in using another custom Facebook ad as the reveal. The jig was up and no permanent damage was done. You might be wondering how much it cost [Brian] for this elaborate prank? The total cost came to $1.70. Facebook has since changed their ad system so you can only target a minimum of 20 users. [Brian] provides an example of how you can get around the limitation, though. If you want to target a male friend, you can simply add 19 females to the group and then target only males within your group of 20 users. A pretty simple workaround

This prank brings up some interesting social questions. [Brian’s] roommate seemed to actually start believing that Facebook might be listening in on his personal calls for the purposes of better ad targeting. How many other people would believe the same thing? Is it really that far-fetched to think that these companies might move in this direction? If we found out they were already doing this type of snooping, would it really come as a shock to us?

Punching Accelerometers

Shortly after finishing his Makiwara punching bag, [Abieneman] wired and programmed an Arduino to an accelerometer to find out just how much acceleration (and with some math, force) is behind his punches. The project is simple and would be quick to reproduce for your own measuring and experiments: all that he used included an Arduino, accelerometer (with A/D converter), LED displays (and shift register). We were a little disappointed to learn of how much static the accelerometer produced, so measuring things such as impulse, energy, and pretty much anything not kinematic is nullified. But it makes us wonder, how much static would be in say, a Wii Remote punching bag?

Charter Abandons Packet Monitoring Advertising Plan

Charter Communications has announced that it will no longer be attempting to target advertising based on user actions. The original strategy would have involved inspecting the contents of every packet sent or received by the customer. This usage pattern is associated with a specific IP and relevant ads are displayed on sites using NebuAd when that IP visits. NebuAd doesn’t directly share the IP, but we’ve seen in the past, even with obfuscation, a user’s search patterns alone have been known to give away their identity. The majority of all internet traffic is plaintext, but endusers have an expectation of privacy. User backlash is what eventually caused Charter to back down, but that doesn’t mean companies like NebuAd are going to be any less common.

[via EFF]
[photo: mattdork]