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Phones, Browsers, and Search Engines Get a Privacy Overhaul

Small companies are showing that the technology we rely on can be redesigned to protect our data—and that consumers are interested.
February 7, 2014

As the reach of the Internet has grown, so has the medium’s favored business model: targeted advertising. Signals recording our activity are harvested as we browse the Web and, increasingly, as we use our smartphones. That information is used to build profiles that help advertisers target ads, and opting out is rarely easy.

NSA phone graphic

Some small companies are now redesigning smartphones and Web browsers to give people more control over that kind of data collection. The founders of these startups claim that many people want an alternative to the data-slurping status quo, and that services such as search engines can be run profitably without harvesting much data.

Blackphone, a smartphone to launch next month, is perhaps the most ambitious of these projects. The Android handset will function like a regular smartphone but has a series of modifications to protect the privacy and security of its owner. Blackphone is a joint venture between Spanish smartphone manufacturer Geeksphone and Silent Circle, a company that Phil Zimmerman, inventor of the PGP encryption software (see “An App Keeps Spies Away from Your Phone”), founded to make apps that encrypt voice calls and text messages.

Javier Agüera, cofounder and chief technology officer of Geeksphone, stresses that the device is not intended to be “NSA-proof.” Rather, Blackphone is designed to let people decide whether companies that profile consumer behavior will be permitted to collect information about their Web browsing or physical movements.

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To that end, the Web browser on the Blackphone will, by default, block ad-tracking technology served up by websites. The Wi-Fi functionality will also be modified so that the handset won’t be tracked by the beacons starting to appear in stores to collect information on how often customers visit and where they have been previously. Silent Circle’s software will also be built into the handset so that calls and text messages to other users of Blackphone or Silent Circle’s services will be encrypted.

“We are making a device that puts privacy first and tries to give control back to the end user to decide what information they share,” says Agüera. “Maybe some people want to benefit from personalized advertisements, but we think you should have a choice.”

People tend not to get that choice today on the Web. Efforts to develop a standard way for people to signal to all websites that they don’t wish to be tracked have foundered, while opt-out schemes offered by ad industry groups and companies such as Google are clunky and little known.

That situation was one reason WhiteHat Security, which offers security for website operators, released its own Web browser for Macs last year, says the company’s cofounder and chief technology officer, Jeremiah Grossman. The browser, called Aviator, blocks online ads and the tracking technology used to profile Web surfers. It also prevents embedded multimedia elements such as Flash videos from playing automatically on Web pages. Aviator is based on Chromium, the open-source browser developed by Google that is the basis of the company’s own browser, Chrome.

“I wish we didn’t have to make this thing, but we had to because the market was not responding to people’s need,” says Grossman. Google and Microsoft lead the market for Web browsers, and both companies are heavily invested in online ads. Even Firefox, developed by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, has a connection to the ad industry, because the bulk of the foundation’s funding comes from Google. In 2012, Google paid $274 million to make its search engine Firefox’s default.

“We’re not anti-ads; we’re pro security and privacy,” says Grossman, who last year showed how online ad networks can be used to distribute malware at large scale (see “Web Ads Used to Launch Online Attacks”).

Aviator was originally developed by WhiteHat for internal use, but Grossman decided to release it publicly after repeatedly being asked by friends and business contacts for tips on how to stay safe and private online. It has been downloaded tens of thousands of times so far, and a version for Windows is due for release in the next few months.

Grossman has not looked into making money on Aviator. But Blackphone and others are betting their companies on the prospect of profits to be made from privacy-protecting technology and more private versions of mass-market consumer services.

Cloud storage company Pogoplug, for instance, launched a cheap device last year that can anonymize and block ads from a home Internet connection (see “Online Anonymity in a Box, for $49”). And a crowdfunded startup called Adtrap offers a $129 device that prevents ads from appearing on any computer or mobile device on a home Wi-Fi network.

Gabriel Weinberg, founder of the search engine DuckDuckGo (see “As Google Tinkers with Search, Upstarts Gain Ground”), which makes a point of retaining minimal data on people compared with Google, says being privacy-centric is no barrier to profitability. “It is a myth that you need to track people to make money,” says Weinberg, though he declines to say whether DuckDuckGo’s ad revenue is enough to make it profitable. “If you type in ‘mortgage,’ you get a mortgage ad,” he says of his search engine. “We don’t have to know, or store, anything about you to do that.”

DuckDuckGo has seen usage more than double since the revelations about National Security Agency surveillance last year, and the company now serves 4.3 million search queries every day. Weinberg is convinced that enough consumers care about what happens to their data to support other companies like his. He says, “I think in almost every category you could have a more private alternative, where the privacy policy says we’re going to store the minimum amount of information we need instead of the maximum amount possible.”

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