Disconnect: Take Control of the Data You Share With Digg, Twitter, Google

Interview with former Google engineer Brian Kennish who created Disconnect to tackle the problem of search tracking. Disconnect helps protect your privacy by allowing you to take control of the data you share.

Most users unintentionally send their name and other personal information along with their browsing and search history to third parties and search engines whenever they are online. Many of us have provided private details when creating accounts at sites such as Digg, Facebook and Twitter (real name, email, birthday, location, etc); when you combine all the information you gave them with any searches you may conduct, the lack of privacy and total information collected about you by these third parties is downright creepy. Microsoft's IE9 will have an opt-in "Tracking Protection" and the FCC wants to fight cookies with a "Do Not Track" mechanism, but no one has really tried to tackle the tremendous problem of search tracking until Brian Kennish. He is the creator of Disconnect which allows you to take control of the data you share.

Brian Kennish created Facebook Disconnect in October, a browser extension that allows users to remove Facebook Connect functionality from websites. Now Kennish, a warrior in the battle of online privacy, is working to protect users even more with Disconnect. On his 2,686th day at Google as an engineer, Brian Kennish quit that job to pour his talent into developing Disconnect, a browser extension that stops search engines and major third parties from tracking the searches you do and the webpages you visit. Disconnect depersonalizes searches, disables tracking by third parties like Digg, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Yahoo without significantly degrading the usability of the web, shows blocked requests and easily allows unblocking. It is open-source software that currently works on Chrome or RockMelt, but Safari and Firefox extensions are coming.

I so greatly respect and appreciate the work he is doing to protect our privacy, I recently interviewed Brian Kennish.

Interview with Brian Kennish:

What motivated you to tackle the huge problem of search tracking?

Kennish: 1. I believe protecting your search history is as important as protecting your browsing history.2. Search tracking is a problem that has never even been approached before (and is all but ignored in the FTC, Microsoft and Mozilla proposals).

What other companies do you intend to add besides Digg, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo tracking requests? Or other features?

Kennish:  I'm planning to add all of them, so long as I can do so without noticeably slowing the browser down. I released Disconnect early and the third-party filtering is still in a primitive state. Since releasing, I've been talking to folks who "track the trackers" - i.e., compile lists of tracking companies and their products - and evaluating who best to integrate with.I targeted social widgets first because I consider them the most dangerous third-party resources on the web and couldn't find another tool that blocks them out of the box. The ubiquity of these widgets means they can report on almost all your browsing activity and their social affiliations mean that browsing activity can then be linked to databases full of personal details you've shared.

Because you indicated in your Twitter account that people wrongly say this is just like such-n-such extension, if you would wish to pick one or two (adblockerplus) whatever ones and say how Disconnect differs?

Kennish: I'll just answer this question generally. Disconnect:

1. depersonalizes searches so your search behavior can't be tracked, which no other tool does;2. blocks dangerous social widgets out of the box, functionality I haven't found in another tool; and3. is focused on maintaining web usability and has, I think, a unique and intuitive interface to this end.

What was the biggest complaint you heard while working at Google?

Kennish: I was troubled by three things while there: 1. Data users ought to have reasonably expected to remain private being made public under business pressure - for the launch of Google Buzz, email contacts were exposed as followers by default to give the service an initial user base that could better compete with the Facebooks and Twitters; companies changing the rules when the market changes is an alarming privacy trend across the industry.2. Bad actors inside the company maliciously accessing private user data - two such cases are externally known, one in which the victims were minors and neither admitted till uncovered by the press; any sufficiently large company faces a likelihood of similar breaches.3. Bad actors outside the company maliciously accessing private user data - we know about the attacks directed by the Chinese government, of course; given Google has the best computer scientists in the world and is susceptible to cracking, so too is every company.

Are you hoping the government might adopt disconnect as part of "Do Not Track"?

Kennish: Right, I'd like to have a butterfly effect on the government groups and browser vendors in position to implement privacy improvements on a mass scale.There's that saying about the man and the hammer and the nail. Well, to the government agency with a successful Do Not Call policy, everything looks like telemarketing. Online tracking isn't like telemarketing, though. When you get tracked online, there's no ringing phone or annoying recorded message to alert you to what's happening. Rather, web bugs are invisible. And if you don't know you're being tracked, you're not going to opt out.Ideally, online tracking would be opt in. But the next best thing is to render tracking as apparent as telemarketing, which is something I want to prototype in Disconnect.

When do you think a FireFox version might be available?

Kennish: Next on my to-do list is the Safari version, to be available by the end of the year.

Thank you, Brian. It's only been about a week since he left Google, but with 25,170 weekly installs of Disconnect, I'd say we all appreciate his efforts. By all means, please take control of the data you share and try out Disconnect!

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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