This is a private blog by Jens Lechtenbörger.

Jens Lechtenbörger

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Ubuntu search still broken in 13.04 beta

What GNU/Linux distribution do you recommend to your friends?

Friends with neither much knowledge about nor interest in computers, who just want a machine that works?

Ubuntu is supposed to be a particularly user-friendly GNU/Linux distribution, and I’ve been using various versions of Ubuntu for several years, although I’m aware that it is not endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. However, even as a long-time user of Ubuntu I must warn you to not install the most recent versions of Ubuntu!

I repeat: Do not install Ubuntu 12.10 or 13.04 beta.

Starting with version 12.10 the company behind Ubuntu, Canonical, made the unforgivable decision to connect Ubuntu’s desktop search with Canonical and with Amazon (and lots of other parties): Your personal search keywords (where you may be searching for private e-mails or office documents containing certain keywords) are sent to Canonical and from there relayed to third parties which can include ads for their products among your search results (and Canonical earns money from affiliate programs). Your machine then downloads images for the search results directly from third party servers. All this has been known for a while, and you may want to read the first (?) report on this issue and comment on the bug.

Thus, not only does Canonical learn your search terms—which is none of their business—but additionally third parties can correlate the search terms coming through Canonical with the requests for images from your machine. Effectively, a number of third parties learn what you are searching for—which is none of their business either. That idea is still present in Ubuntu 13.04 beta. If you do not mind that your browser downloads embedded images from Amazon and 7digital, you may want to check out this External Image Report visualizing a search for “privacy [ … wait a little … ] breach”, generated with chaosreader based on network traffic of Ubuntu 13.04 beta. Note that the report does not only include images from Amazon but also from 7digital, which is totally unknown to me, but which now knows my search terms.

Such conduct represents a major privacy breach, ignoring any thought to privacy-by-design principles. (It does not help that online search can be disabled, if you know how.)

For the time being I’m recommending Ubuntu 12.04.2 LTS (Precise Pangolin), where desktop search remains our private business. That version is a so-called “long-term support” version, and it will be supported until April 2017, which should give enough time to get used to the freedom and simplicity of GNU/Linux and to switch to something else.

So, let me ask you, again, what GNU/Linux distribution do you recommend to your friends? One among those?