When Brian Kennish worked as a software engineer writing advertising apps for Google, he discovered something hidden deep in the bowels of the Googleplex that profoundly disturbed him. He was astonished as to how many third party locations Google’s data was ending up on. With a bit of digging, Kennish discovered that there were about 7,000 third parties tracking the activities of Google’s users, in addition to the 1,000 top level sites that were acknowledged to collect that sensitive data. With the near universal presence of internet users on Facebook, it becomes a relatively simple task to correlate online behavior activity A with User X and then all pretense of online anonymity vanishes in a flurry of binary digits.
A Few Hours of Coding
A skilled programmer, Kennish quickly coded a Chrome browser extension that he called Facebook Disconnect to stanch the unauthorized bleeding of data. He loaded it up to the Chrome app store and soon achieved an installed base of 50,000 users. His businessman’s revelation that there was a market there caused Kennish to resign from Google and set up his own company Disconnect.me with a fellow Google engineer and a privacy advocate. With their credentials and their software approaching half a million users, they had little trouble raising $600,000 from Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists and they are on their way to a million users – when Kennish expects to convert his service to a paid business model.
What the various Disconnect.me extensions to popular browsers do is to stop the flow of your data from the third-party sites to Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo and anywhere else you don’t want them to go. For most people their preferred destination for their personal online data is nowhere and that is the basis for the success of Disconnect.me and the similar available services. It seems that for every online user who is actually attracted by the fact that they might visit the Hyundai site and then see a predominance of served ads for Accents and Elantras on most of the unrelated sites they click on for days, there are many who are appalled and aggravated, especially when their tracked behavior can be aggregated to determine a lot more about the user than almost anyone would expect.
Little Bread Crumbs Collected into a Full Loaf
The simple fact that you might be interested in a Hyundai is not necessarily personally identifiable, but with Facebook, Google and others collecting your posts, your searches and a plethora of other information you leave behind you when navigating through the internet, there are ways to correlate these little bread crumbs into an entire coherent loaf of information about you, right down to name, birthday and even in some cases your social security number! Once all that information is in the hands of ne’er do wells, your identity, credit bureau records and just about everything else about you is easily accessible.
Cargo Ships Full of Cash
The question of why these sites are tracking you like rabid stalkers is very simple: Cash, and lots of it. With sky high market valuations into the hundreds of billions of dollars, sites like Google and Facebook have to justify to their current and future shareholders that they do something other than provide touchy-feely nerd services on the internet. They have to make cargo ships full of money, and given the infinite appetite of advertisers hungry for highly targeted individual profiles to leverage in pitching specific products and services, it seems a match made in heaven… for the companies and advertisers – although not necessarily the user.
One of the more interesting aspects of Kenneth’s plans is that he believes that there is a business potential for internet users to not just manage where their personal data is going, but actually sell it on the open market. After all, Kenneth thinks that since people allow advertisers to place their messages on their blogs, it’s only a small step to selling the privilege of having ads shown to themselves alone. O brave new world that has such people in’t… who will sell their eyeballs!