The Privacy Startups: Creating A Company In Four Hours


Credit: Flickr / Brian Kennish

Part of an occasional series on startups that are focusing on privacy.

Disconnect is a startup that lets users shut off the tracking features of web sites without logging them out of the web services they want to use. But Brian Kennish, the former *Google* engineer who founded the company in November, says he doesn’t think of it as a “privacy” company-and in fact, he’s not exactly a firebrand on the privacy issue himself.

Kennish doesn’t load up on ad-blockers and spend his time clearing cookies; and he doesn’t use any privacy-related software other than Disconnect. “I’d say I have an average concern over privacy,” he says. “I don’t want to spend all my time thinking about it. It’s just not that interesting.” He’s betting that there are a lot of users like him.

The internet is radically changing expectations around what is private, and what gets shared. As more of what we do moves online, privacy has become a significant concern for some consumers, as well as for many regulators in Washington, D.C. In the past year, we’ve also seen a dramatic response from businesses, with most of the major browsers adding a Do Not Track option and a growing number of startups forming to help users better control how their information is shared. Disconnect is one of those new companies.

paidContent spoke to Kennish to learn more about his three-person company and his views on the fast-evolving world of privacy online.

Number of Employees: 3
Founded: November 2010
Founder: Brian Kennish, a former Google engineer
Funding: None yet
Location: San Francisco

The Idea: Big companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter all have widgets around the web that make sharing content easier than ever. The problem is that those widgets also collect information about users-even users who don’t ever click to use the services.

Anyone can use ad-blocking software, or just clear cookies often, and cut off most trackers at the knees. But clearing cookies also has the side-effect of logging one out of services like Twitter and Facebook. Using Disconnect allows a person to surf the web, and stay logged in to services, while stopping the tracking. Disconnect started off as an extension for Google Chrome, and the company recently launched versions for Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser. Some early indicators suggest that the number of users that want to take steps to shut off tracking is quite small. A Firefox executive recently acknowledged that the number of users choosing DNT ranges from 1 to 2 percent.

Those low numbers don’t deter Kennish at all. “If we got 1 percent of web users, we’d be a huge business.”

How He Got The Idea: Kennish was an engineer at Google when he built Facebook Disconnect on a whim in October. The project took him all of four hours-2.5 of which were spent designing the logo. Built as an extension for the Google Chrome browser, it lets users stay logged in to Facebook but prevents tracking across all the sites that are in the Facebook Connect network.

Kennish did no promotion at all and expected to get a few hundred users. Within two weeks more than 50,000 people were using Facebook Disconnect. That showed him there was real interest in this area. The following month Kennish, who had been at Google seven years, left the search giant to build more software that helps users anonymize their web browsing.

Today, the San Francisco-based funding has three employees; it has yet to get any venture funding.

What’s Next: Kennish wants to tag the top 10,000 websites with a simple set of icons that would tell users what kinds of information-sharing they are engaging in when they visit those sites, and dramatically simplify hard-to-understand privacy policies. He hopes to accomplish this by “crowdsourcing” the task and letting users build a sort of “wiki” telling others what each site does with user information.
My initial guess was that the privacy policies of most sites, when you read the fine print, would be quite permissive. But Kennish’s team has looked at about 40 sites so far and says that isn’t always the case. “Some sites are quite good — it’s not homogenous at all.”

Kennish also has been doing privacy research for the *Wall Street Journal* , which contracted with him as part of its What They Know series to analyze the data flowing from the widgets on various sites to popular services like Twitter, Facebook and Google (NSDQ: GOOG). Looking at the top 1,000 sites, Kennish found that 331 of those sites sent users’ browsing histories to Facebook, while 246 were sending such data to Google and 197 to Twitter.

How The Company Makes Money: Disconnect isn’t charging for anything at this point, and Kennish says his work with privacy policies is going to be open-sourced. He does plan to build a paid product in the future, but isn’t ready to say much about it at this point, other than that it will also be tracking-focused and will also be geared towards consumers.

What the paid products ultimately look like may depend a lot on whether a Do Not Track bill passes Congress, and what the bill looks like if it does pass.

The Most Overblown Part Of The Privacy Discussion: One area where the media’s concerns are likely running ahead of real issues: locational privacy. “The info in your browsing history is probably more personal than your physical location information,” at least for the typical consumer, says Kennish.

The Competition: Kennish’s closest competition is likely to be the browser companies themselves. All four of the major web browsers have beefed up their privacy features in the past year, and are promising to help users who desire to stop tracking do so.

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