Sunday, August 14, 2022

Pi Hole testing

Let me first say that I don't have a problem with ads. There are ads on this Website, for instance. And, I subscribe to ad-supported Hulu. I also watch content from many free ad-supported television (FAST) services. I'm fine with ads.

If I don't want ads, I'll pay to remove them. For instance, I've subscribed to YouTube Premium to eliminate ads on that service. I will visit Websites that have ads -- my own had ads, so I'm okay with ad-supported Websites -- and if I think the ads are too obtrusive, I will simply stop visiting the Website.

You won't find me leading the charge for ad blockers or network filters. However, I am currently testing Pi Hole. And that may need some explanation.

First, if you aren't familiar with Pi Hole, it's an application that can run on Linux devices that blocks ads and trackers. So why am I, who claims to be fine with ads, running an ad blocker? Well, it's not the ad blocker I'm interested in. It's the tracker blocker feature.

I'm actually planning to test a few different processes to block trackers. I'm not really interested in blocking ads. Well, with one exception, which I'll come back to in a bit.

Blocking trackers is actually functionality that is built in to many Web browsers. However, I'm looking for a network wide solution to blocking trackers. That's where Pi Hole comes in.

It's a multiple stage process I'm going through. First, I want to see how easy it is to set up and run in general.

Next, I am researching how to block trackers on the network without impacting ad services (well, most; I said there's an exception, and the details are still to come).

Then, I want to confirm how well the process works on the network.

I've just set up Pi Hole this weekend, so I'm still doing the first step. It is blocking trackers, but it's also blocking ads. As I'm still in the setup phase, the blocked ads are collateral damage, and I'll work to reduce that. I don't mind ads, after all, and I think those that put forth a product for free deserve the compensation of the display of ads, if that's the cost of using the service.

I've begun the research into how to use tracker blocking without blocking ads, as much as that is possible. Heck, I may find it's not possible, and if that's the case, I'll then make the best decision on how to proceed if it comes to that. But, my goal is to block trackers, not ads.

I'm running Pi Hole on a Raspberry Pi, though it will run on many Debian and Fedora based systems (Raspberry Pi OS is Debian based). I actually had a problem setting up the system, as I found one of my Raspberry Pi devices was damaged by a recent storm (lots of stuff was damaged by that storm). But, I set up another one and it actually went well.

I've configured it to run over the entire network for this initial testing. I don't know if I'll keep it that way or not; I'll see how it goes. And, so far, it's going well. I just need to figure out how to limit the blocking to trackers and let legit ads through.

And that's the other point I teased. I found a type of ad that I do want to block. There was a Website that I heard had been hacked, but when I went to it on my laptop, didn't have a problem. Then I went to it on a mobile device, and sure enough, the redirect to a malware site happened. Turns out there is code on the Website that redirects mobile devices to a software installation page. That's not good.

So, after doing some testing, I found that two domains that are included in ad-based code on the Website can cause the redirection. I blocked those two, and the redirection stopped.

That tells me that Pi Hole's default scripts aren't perfect, as they weren't blocking two domains that contained ad content, and that those ad servers had been compromised. So, if I keep using Pi Hole after this testing is done, I'll use it to block domains that are compromised. They may be considered legitimate ad servers, but if they can't keep them safe, then I don't consider them legit and will block them.

I'm okay with ads in my online and Streaming Life. I'm not okay with my usage being tracked, and I'm not okay with malware. I'll find a way to stop it, if I can.

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