Jedi knights of online privacy strike back at data-mining empires

Firms such as CloudCapture, which launched Wednesday, and Abine, which debuted its 'Do Not Track Plus' app in February, see a ripe opportunity to turn the technology developed to mine personal data into a tool consumers can use to fight its abuse.

This has been dubbed “the year of Big Data,” meaning a time when online firms such as Facebook and Google are capitalizing on an unprecedented and vast amount of personal, user-generated information.

But the rush to corral, and monetize, that data is also fast ushering in a new digital management industry built around growing worries over the loss of personal privacy.

“Every day consumers are beginning to pay more attention to this issue,” says Rob D’Ovidio, an associate professor of criminal justice and an expert on Internet security at Drexel University in Philadelphia. As more services to tackle the topic appear, “they will not only give consumers new tools but they will play an educational role in pushing understanding of the larger privacy issues.”

Concerns have been escalating over what these Internet giants are doing with user data. Everyone from the White House and the Federal Trade Commission to the EU, and digital rights groups from the US to Europe, have been tussling with the problem of how to get online companies to respect consumers' privacy rights.

So far, voluntary moves by players such as Facebook and Google to address privacy concerns – notably a “Do Not Track” button that has no enforcement mechanism behind it – lack teeth, say critics.

Private companies such as Los Angeles-based CloudCapture, which launched Wednesday, and Abine, which debuted its “Do Not Track Plus” application in February, see a ripe opportunity to turn the same complex technology that was developed to mine personal data into a tool consumers can use to fight its abuse.

“This is a repeat of what we saw at the beginning of the Internet,” says Bill Kerrigan, chief executive officer of Abine, a four-year-old online security company based in Boston. “People slowly began to realize there were things going on all over the Internet they had no understanding about, and the antivirus industry was born.” The same “awareness-driving-adoption” cycle is now building behind privacy issues, he says.

“Just as people began demanding tools to fight computer viruses, they are now waking up to the need to protect their personal privacy online,” Mr. Kerrigan says. “We are at a point where consumers want someone working on their behalf.”

More than 580 different technologies are being used to track personal data, he notes. Indeed, 73 percent of people using the Internet consider it an invasion of privacy for a search engine to keep track of searches and use that information to personalize future search results, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center released this past week. Only 38 percent of the poll’s respondents had a general idea of what to do about data about them being collected online.

“Consumers are beginning to understand they need to address the issue,” Kerrigan says.

Abine’s new app and the newly launched CloudCapture focus on blocking automatic tracking and finding ways to give control back to the user.

“CloudCapture’s mantra is Block, Capture, Control,” says founder Alex Huf. “Now that they've been educated, it's time for users to take control without waiting for governments to do it for them.”

Both Abine and CloudCapture are installed in the user’s Internet browser and automatically block all online companies from tracking. Users can decide when and where to give out data.

However, “most consumers don’t understand the value of their personal data, and will willingly give up much in exchange for a quick return,” says Joseph Turow, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and associate dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“We have to understand this from the perspective of the beginning of a century of big data,” he says, noting that it is not enough to simply put up intermediary companies. “People have to begin to engage with this issue and understand it, because data is the oxygen of the Internet,” he says, adding with a rueful laugh, “and if we don’t fully understand this it could suffocate us.”

Changing the paradigm is the beginning of understanding, says Huf.

“The embrace of disruption has always been part of our technology culture,” he says. “CloudCapture continues that trend by disrupting a monopoly the largest companies have on user data. It empowers the user to turn the tables and force everyone else to play by new rules.”

But tools cannot do all the work. Users must take responsibility for their own actions online, says communications professor Ananda Mitra of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Would you stand in the middle of a ball field and use a megaphone to announce your last night’s drinking frenzy? Probably not,” he says via e-mail. Why would you do the same on a social media site? he asks. The issue is that “the user often forgets that what masquerades as 'interpersonal communication' is bordering on 'mass communication.' ”

In the end, he notes, “we need to be responsible for what we say and take the consequences of what we have said. Tools are mere software machines; we are the creators of the discourse.” 

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