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App Bribes You Into Airing Your Digital Dirty Laundry

Nice to Hack You extracts the most embarrassing items from your browsing history, then offers you swag to air it to the rest of the world.

How often do you clear your web browser history? Have you ever gone “Incognito” (Google’s cutesy term for “private browsing” in its Chrome app)? If you’re like me, the answers are “hardly ever” and “nope.” Why would I? I have nothing to hide. So why did I install Nice 2 Hack You, a Chrome browser extension that slurps up your browsing history and extracts the most embarrassing items, with a vague feeling of dread?

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Nice to Hack You is the latest data-pranking app from Rajeev Basu and the electronic music act Big Data. Their previous collaboration, The Facehawk, scraped your Facebook profile and visualized the information as a bird of prey. This time, Basu was inspired by the backlash to Facebook’s mood manipulation experiments in 2014. (The incident also inspired Big Data’s song “The Business of Emotion.”) “It made me think about how concerned people have become about how their data is used online,” Basu tells Co.Design. “With Nice 2 Hack You we set out to challenge people’s natural instinct to protect their privacy at all costs.”

Nice 2 Hack You’s algorithm, which Basu says he honed over several months, scans your browser history for pre-selected “interesting things” and then populates a digital poster highlighting the juicy tidbits. Here’s an example (it’s not mine, I swear):


Despite the slightly NSFW illustrations, skeevy sex is only a small part of what Nice 2 Hack You considers “interesting” about your online activity. “There are so many everyday things, personal to each of us, that we would probably rather keep to ourselves,” Basu says. “From looking at careers websites, to looking up medical conditions, being on dating sites, or even guilty pleasure songs or TV shows. Often you just forget about them.” Alan Wilkis, Big Data’s lead vocalist, ran the extension on his studio computer and identified “favorites” like a “Prancercising” fitness workout video and an article titled “Kim Kardashian Flaunts Famous Butt in Skintight Workout Gear.”

Harmless fun, right? But Basu has added a twist to Nice 2 Hack You’s seemingly gentle teasing. Once you let the extension “hack” you and generate the poster, you’re offered another choice: do you keep the info to yourself, or share it with the band and the public in exchange for swag? “The project has just launched, so we’re curious to see who is brave enough,” Basu says. “It sounds ridiculous, and it sort of is. But people will do it.”

Of course they will. Why? Because we’ve been trained to by the biggest Internet companies on Earth — Google and Facebook — which routinely offer baubles and conveniences (er, “products and services”) in exchange for access to highly personal data. These everyday transactions are no less “ridiculous” than the one proffered by Nice 2 Hack You. In fact, they’re arguably more ridiculous. I was so charmed by Google Photos that I happily dumped 1,500 photos of my wife and daughters into its maw within minutes of downloading it. That’s pretty personal stuff. Google will data-mine it. But I never experienced anything like a “vague feeling of dread” before proceeding, as I did with Nice 2 Hack You’s satirical caricature of the same transaction.

There are obvious reasons for this. It doesn’t take a psychology professor to consider that the prospect of actual human beings (like Basu and his cohorts) seeing my digital dirty laundry has a much different effect on my primate emotions than the abstract notion of my digital dirty laundry (and everything else) getting stripped for parts by faceless software bots in a distant data center. Still, I hadn’t even considered the similarity at all until I installed and ran Nice 2 Hack You. Not bad for a promotional music video.

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[Nice 2 Hack You requires Google Chrome and at least 2 months of browser history. Try it here.]

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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