Tech startups working to protect your privacy

Privacy

Addressing the Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference over the weekend of 18 July, Edward Snowden entreated hackers, engineers and activists to fight surveillance by building a new generation of privacy tools for everyone to use. In fact, privacy startups are already hard at work building tools to help web users protect their privacy in areas such as analytics, encryption and search.

However, there is still much work to do to put these tools into the hands of the ordinary web user.

Since the NSA revelations last year, this task has continued to grow in significance as more and more privacy scares have grabbed the attention of the general public. Earlier this month, for example, an employee of Germany's intelligence service was arrested on suspicion of spying for the US.

However, it's not just the NSA who is the guilty party. Corporations such as Google and Facebook are also building treasure troves of personal information to share with others, often without your consent.

Emerging technology startups from around the world have responded to privacy concerns by building user-friendly products in three key areas: analytics, encryption and search.

It's more often than not a David versus Goliath scenario, with many of the startups taking up the challenge of competing against Google. Despite the nature of this challenge, market demand for privacy-friendly products has proven strong, so the hackers and entrepreneurs remain undeterred.

In analytics, Google Analytics is the most popular tool for companies and governments who want to analyze traffic on their website. While popular, it doesn't put users in control of their data. If you use Google Analytics, Google would not only know all visitors to your website (and which pages they looked at on your site), but because most other websites use GA as well (or another Google product), Google would also know, for example, the 19 other websites that person visited earlier that day and the hundreds of websites they looked at in the last month.

Because more than 60 percent of all websites on the Internet use Google Analytics, Google Adsense or another Google product using tracking beacons -- "only 36.5 percent of the web is Google-free" -- Google is able to build a very accurate picture of most websites and their users.

There is a competitive threat at stake here too: allowing Google to use your data to improve their other products, enables it to collect data to build custom audiences that they sell via AdWords to your competitors.

Using Google Analytics therefore means running a risk of losing control of your data. In light of this, governments, companies and individuals are using alternatives such as Piwik, an open source web analytics platform which puts users in control of their data and does not share data with other servers.

Piwik's approach to data retention includes anonymized IP addresses, a respect for DoNotTrack requests, an opt-out mechanism and shorter expiration dates for tracking cookies.

In another case of David versus Goliath, DuckDuckGo is giving Google a run for its money in online search. The search engine doesn't collect IP addresses or track your searches. It exploded in popularity in 2013 following the revelations about NSA mass surveillance.

Innovation in privacy-friendly tools is not, however, just limited to analytics and search. Startups are building tools to make it easier for web users to encrypt communications and files. GPG tools, for example, are growing in popularity as web-users download plugins such as GPG for Mail to encrypt Apple Mail and GPG Keychain to manage OpenPGP Keys. HTTPS Everywhere is another popular browser extension for Firefox and Chrome that encrypts communications with major websites, making browsing more secure.

Beyond web tools and software, hardware is also becoming more privacy-friendly: Silent Circle teamed up with Geeksphone to design and build the Blackphone, an Android phone boasting an array of sophisticated features for private communications, browsing and cloud storage.

For the ordinary web user, keeping up with the variety of new privacy tools is a daunting task. The community has recognized this, however, and has built PRISM break, an online resource available in 26 languages which provides details on alternative web tools and software for people who wish to opt out of global data surveillance programs like PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora.

The tools listed on PRISM Break and startups outlined in this article are the building blocks of the free and open internet. Campaigning to raise public awareness of these tools, make them easier to use for the general public and highlight the dangers of mass surveillance will ensure the Internet we love is not twisted into something it was never meant to be.

Maciej Zawadziński is a co-founder of Piwik PRO.

Image Credit: iQoncept/Shutterstock

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