Even for a longtime OBA watcher like me, using the tracking detection tool Ghostery was a revelation. Now owned by DAA compliance provider Evidon, the little plug-in for the browser tracks the trackers. Suddenly you could see that some of your favorite sites had cookies and beacons from a range of analytics companies, ad networks, data providers, etc. that most consumers had never heard of. And while the free utility has been available for years now, I still find many seasoned Web publishers who have never tried it.
PrivacyChoice.org is another provider of tracker scanning tools, and it has a sleeker interface with its own categorization scheme of companies’ privacy and data sharing policies. The tools have been out there, in other words, but this is the sort of stuff that industry geeks and tech-savvy privacy mavens discover.
Increasingly we are seeing privacy going mainstream. Not only is the issue more public as times goes on, but developers see in it an opportunity for creating a new market. Just this week, the startup Abine released a DNT+ (Do Not Track Plus) tracker detection and blocking tool that is just the lead-in for a suite of products and what should be a sophisticated marketing campaign. The company CEO, Bill Kerrigan, is a former top exec with security software company McAfee. He recently assembled a group of execs, including former marketer for Zipcar and Gazelle, Kristina Kennedy, and Intuit and Linden Lab engineering veteran Brian Michon. The company is backed by Atlas Venture and General Catalyst Partners. The company believes there is a market here. It told USA Today that it believed about 28 million people in North America would have tracking detection and blocking tools installed on their machines by the end of this year.
This is an example of privacy becoming productized and using mass merchandising tactics. The DNT+ plug in for most major Web browsers is free to use. The company is working on a freemium model designed to sell premium services that claim to wipe and monitor personal information from online databases. It is also preparing a full suite of privacy and identity products. In essence they are trying to construct a business as an extension of the longstanding and lucrative PC security industry that keeps Symantec Norton and MacAfee going.
The DNT+ product I installed brings the polish and clarity of tracking the trackers to a new level. It was designed to respond to a study last year that found many of the available tools too confusing for consumers to use. Like Ghostery, this tool puts an icon in the toolbar of the browser with a counter of the number of trackers it has detected at a site. Clicking on it activates a drop-down categorized list. One of the exceptional things that it does is detect social-network-embedded sharing buttons and disable the tracking without disabling the functionality. It also pools the other cookies and beacons into buckets of ad networks and “companies tracking you” that include analytics and data providers.
Significantly, the DNT+ tool blocks everything by default. I installed it thinking I was going to monitor tracking and then elect to block, but the program defaults to full block mode. It makes you opt in to everything, or select providers. The program maintains an enormous range of companies it lists. It even gamifies blocking by keeping a running total at the bottom of the drop down of how many entities have been blocked. I amassed 139 social shares, ad networks and trackers in about five Web sites.
A few things are remarkable about this sort of product. First, that VC money is getting behind a burgeoning privacy industry at all indicates that the money thinks there is something here. Ironically, General Catalyst Partners, one of the funding sources for this company, also backs Visible Measures, MocoSpace and even database marketing company Datalogix, all of whom rely on user data in one way or another for their business models. Atlas Venture is a backer of DataXu.
As well, a funded company like this can invest in serious marketing that gets through to consumers. The DAA compliance ecosystem and Google have their assuring ads campaigns and videos about how anonymized tracked data is and how all of this free content online needs to be underwritten somehow. Abine has its counterpoint and equally simplified stick figure YouTube animations.
In this case, however, they tease out the underlying paranoia over data collection. In one video, for instance, the company compares online data collection to a spy planting a bug in your purse to track your movements and activities in a shopping mall. And what if it tracked you when you visited the library or took a vacation or visited your doctor, the promo asks. The video even suggests that a bunch of suits back at an undisclosed corporate headquarters is tying that anonymous profile to personally identifiable information. In other words, the battle of the oversimplified video cartoons is on. Paranoia vs. palliatives. Where are the user-generated send-ups when we really need them?