Disconnect co-founder interview: People will pay for tools to protect privacy, Facebook still tracks us when logged out

Casey Oppenheim a founder of popular browser extension and privacy startup Disconnect tells us why Facebook can't be trusted (but we should trust Disconnect) - why government intervention is not the ultimate answer, how this isn't just a 'tinfoil hat' theory, and why '‘If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to worry' is a ridiculous statement

Facebook Disconnect

Facebook Disconnect is the Google Chrome extension which has grown significantly in popularity over recent weeks amid growing concerns about the information Facebook collects on it’s users – and what Facebook does with it. Earlier this month, over 85,000 people installed their extensions ‘Disconnect’ and ‘Facebook Disconnect’. Towards the end of last year, after the success of Facebook Disconnect, those behind this free and open source extension left their jobs at Google and produced a similar, more extensive version called ‘Disconnect’, which blogs Google, Facebook and Twitter from tracking the user – whilst keeping the sites fully operational.

Disconnect was founded by three ex-Googlers including Brian Kennish, along with Casey Oppenheim. Casey told us how Brian was an “early Google engineer who worked on AdWords, AdSense, Wave, and Chrome”, and that “other ex-Googlers on the team worked on Calendar, AdWords, YouTube, Wave, and Android.” Casey told us how he was never at Google, “just a techie privacy lawyer entrepreneur that’s addicted to the internets”.

We spoke to co-founder Casey Oppenheim about the principles behind Disconnect and Facebook Disconnect, why we should use them and whether there is an emerging business opportunity for services that protect privacy of users online in a world where more third parties than ever are tracking what we do when connected to the internet. We also looked at the wider issues – what the ultimate answer is to protecting our privacy on-line, to which Casey tells us how governments are in no position intervene – potentially stifling job creation or the billions in revenue that are directly attributable by targeted online ads- especially with Facebook and Google spending big on lobbyists.

The responses are published in their entirety below.

What were your original motivations behind Disconnect?

[Casey Oppenheim] Brian created Facebook Disconnect because we liked using Facebook but didn’t want them to track our browsing history. Similarly, Brian created Disconnect because we didn’t want to be tracked by third-parties and came up with a solution that was better than anything already available.

Brian Kennish

Brian Kennish left his job at Google for a table at Starbucks, where he worked on his privacy software called Disconnect

Why should people use Disconnect?

[Casey Oppenheim] Because they like using the web and services like Facebook and Google but don’t want these and other major third-parties to track and record their online activity.

What made you turn Disconnect from a project, in to a start-up?

[Casey Oppenheim] Within weeks we had tens of thousands of installs — without any marketing. And users weren’t just installing, they were reaching out, telling us how important the issue of privacy was to them. And privacy is important to us too.

Do you see a future where people will pay for tools to protect their privacy?

[Casey Oppenheim] We’re in the beginnings of the pay for privacy era. People realise more and more that all these “free” services aren’t really free — we pay with our data. Our data has a price and I think people will pay for awesome tools that help them control their data.

Locked down, private browsers are certainly an intriguing idea. But building — and maintaining — a browser is no small feat.

Google Chrome Incognito Mode

Google Chrome has a built in feature called 'Incognito Mode'. New cookies are deleted after you close all incognito windows that you've opened.

What is wrong with easily opening an ‘incognito’ browser window?

[Casey Oppenheim] You can be very strict about opening a new incognito window every time you want to privately browse or search, then closing the window when you’re done, and never logging into any services.

Or you can just click once and install Disconnect.

Even if you opt for opening and closing incognito windows, your browsing activity will still be collected by third parties along with your IP address and could be linked to your name later. Disconnect prevents your activity from being sent to third parties altogether.

Some might say that “we are so afraid of Google and Facebook tracking our searches/web pages, yet we freely install plugins from 3rd party developers that can easily gather everything that Google and Facebook can get, and more.” – why should users trust you?

[Casey Oppenheim] As stated in our privacy policy our browser extensions collect no information. Google and Facebook’s policies certainly don’t read like that. Google makes 97% of its revenue from ads and Facebook 90%+. Disconnect makes zero $ tracking users.

How do we know Google doesn’t track everything we do inside Google Chrome – where does it stop?

[Casey Oppenheim] That’s a great question. Next time I run into Larry, Sergey or Eric Schmidt I’ll ask and get back to you.

Kidding aside, I think Google’s ability to record and collect search and browsing data on the 100Ms of people who log into Google services using their real name raises a host of serious privacy concerns.

What do you make of ‘Keep my Opt Out’ by Google?

[Casey Oppenheim] This extension does not comprehensively block tracking, rather I think it opts you out of personalised ads.

What do you feel the reasons are behind Facebook tracking it’s users – surely the intentions of Facebook are good, so what’s the problem?

[Casey Oppenheim] Facebook’s primary objective is to maximize value for shareholders — not its users. More tracking = more targeted ads = more $.

Some might say – “Surely Facebook’s privacy controls are adequate” – what do you make of this?

[Casey Oppenheim] Yes, Facebook’s privacy controls are more than adequate – to protect Facebook’s bottom line and continued growth.

[Editors Note: It appears that a lot of emphasis is put on Facebook’s privacy controls being adequate, though the issue which is frequently ignored in mainstream media is the protection of your personal information from Facebook itself – from the inside]

What do you feel the reasons are that people have a lack of trust for Facebook, above every other web based service?

[Casey Oppenheim] They hold the key to a ton of personal information on 750M users.

What is your opinion of those who dismiss all the fuss as ‘tinfoil hat’ theories?

[Casey Oppenheim] Its certainly not a theory that internet companies are making billions in annual revenue from advertising. Its also not a theory that the more information you have about a person the better you can target ads and products to them.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg held a sign reading 'Thanks' after the site reached 500 million users last year

Mark Zuckerberg, recently idolised in the box office hit ‘The Social Network‘ has denounced privacy as a ‘social norm’ of the past, proclaiming that the ‘age of privacy is over’ and ‘People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people’. – what are your views on this?

[Casey Oppenheim] I think Facebook has decided to sacrifice tens of millions of privacy conscious folks and exploit unprecedented amounts of personal data from the remaining 700M users.

Zuck’s oft quoted opinion flies in the face of some pretty convincing research that suggests people care deeply about online privacy.

Here’s one study (New York Times).

Highlights:

  • 80% of users don’t want to be tracked at all.
  • Even when they are told that the act of following them on websites will take place anonymously, Americans’ aversion to it remains: 68% “definitely” would not allow it, and 19% would “probably” not allow it.
  • Americans mistakenly believe that current government laws restrict companies from selling wide-ranging data about them. When asked true-false questions about companies’ rights to share and sell information about their activities online and off, respondents on average answer only 1.5 of 5 online laws and 1.7 of the 4 offline laws correctly because they falsely assume government regulations prohibit the sale of data.
  • 92% agree there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual, if requested to do so.

What do you make of Facebook’s recent statement in response to the issues recently raised about tracking users whilst logged out – ‘Facebook does not track users across the web. Instead, we use cookies on social plug-ins to personalise content…”

[Casey Oppenheim] Well just this week uber blogger Nik Cubrilovic broke a story that Facebook’s controversial data cookie found its way back onto the web. If Facebook gets a unique identifier linked to my Facebook account from any page I visit with a Like button — whether I’m logged into Facebook at the time or not. That sounds like tracking to me.

Do you agree with view recently expressed by blogger, Ben Parr that Facebook is “It’s just a few updates away now from euthanizing the concept of privacy.”?

[Casey Oppenheim] No, Facebook’s increased information gathering is actually igniting an intense privacy debate. Our install numbers literally spike everytime Zuck opens his mouth publicly to announce a new “awesome” feature that enables Facebook to collect more info on its users.

Since Facebook isn’t a bank, or ecommerce organisation is it wrong to hold it to such high standards to respect the privacy of its users?

[Casey Oppenheim] Facebook has extremely personal and valuable information about 750M users, so no I think its absolutely reasonable.

What about the argument ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to worry’?

[Casey Oppenheim] Anybody that asks me that question better be prepared to get naked, hand over their journal, and go to the bathroom in front of me and 100 of my closest friends. Its a totally ridiculous statement. The fact of the matter is that our browsing and search history is directly linked to our inner most thoughts, and that’s extremely personal stuff.

Web privacy is not about wanting to hide or become invisible, its about not wanting to expose your most personal private details to a corporation so they can monetize your info and potentially record it for all time.

What do you feel the impacts of people sharing everything on Facebook, combined with Facebook tracking it’s users every move will be in the future?

[Casey Oppenheim] We can’t know. But the thing about digital information is that its not going anywhere. The information Facebook tracks about me could be around when I’m long gone.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg at an on-stage interview during the D8 conference

What is the ultimate answer – does it with government intervention, legislation, education or something else?

[Casey Oppenheim] Education and options. Facebook and Google have recently proved they are going to spend huge lobbying $, and governments are in no position to stifle job creation or the billions in revenue that are directly attributable by targeted online ads. Things will change because as internet users continue to learn more about web tracking they are demanding privacy friendly products and solutions. And the market / developers are listening.

Isn’t it true that ‘nothing on the internet should be presumed private’?

[Casey Oppenheim] Yes, act as though everything you do on the web is public because it just might be.

[Editors Note: Interestingly, Disconnect think there should be a "common set of privacy icons that, at a glance, tell people important information about how websites use their data." These current icons are based on a proposal by a Mozilla-led working group and were designed by Ocupop - Disconnect describes them as a 'work in progress'.]

Share your views below and contribute to the discussion:

What do you think of Disconnect – and will you pay for tools to protect your privacy? Is it all just a ‘tinfoil hat theory’ – or do you agree with Casey?