In October, Google engineer Brian Kennish debuted Facebook Disconnect, a Chrome extension that wipes out virtually all evidence of Facebook from your Web experience. Since then, Kennish has quit his job with Google to focus entirely on Disconnect, another extension for Chrome and RockMelt that aims to help users to block the larger scope of tracking devices on the increasingly social Web.
Kennish released Facebook Disconnect in October and the extension quickly gained popularity, hitting the top 10 list of Google Chrome extensions. He told us that he quit his job at Google three weeks later so that he could “develop tools that make it trivial for the average user to understand and control the data they share whenever they browse or search the Web.” He said that he thinks Google is “collecting more personal data than any other company” and “to fight for user privacy while working there would’ve been impossible.”
Disconnect, similar to his earlier project, blocks a number of third-party widgets from sites like Digg, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo, as well as de-personalizes search at the cookie level, allowing you to remain logged-in to services like iGoogle or Gmail without having your search queries attached to your Google profile.
Kennish said that, while the tool is in a primitive state, he hopes it will have a larger effect on the debate over privacy on the Web.
“Realistically, Disconnect won’t have a significant direct impact on the average user’s privacy — Adblock (and I mean the whole suite) is the most successful browser extension and used by less than 1% of the Web population,” said Kennish. “So government policy and what browser vendors ship natively is more important to me. I’m hoping to show a better way through software and have a butterfly effect on policy and browser implementation.”
Kennish calls the “Do Not Track” method of opting-out “a bad model for defending online privacy because phones ring and get your attention, where Web bugs are invisible and go unnoticed.”
Indeed, last summer one online advocacy group released a browser extension that alerts you “whenever your personal information is being sent to Google servers.” The result was a near constant barrage of alarm bells – if your phone rang this often, you would go insane. Disconnect takes a less obnoxious method, showing a running tally of how many calls have been blocked in the extension’s toolbar icon. Clicking on the icon also allows you to quickly allow for unblocking because, no matter our privacy talk, these tools are also useful in our online lives and not always unwanted. Kennish’s point is more that the user should be allowed to opt-in, rather than needing to opt-out – an oft-heard refrain in online privacy discussions.
Kennish said that he started with blocking standard third-party social widgets “because I consider them the most dangerous third-party resources and there didn’t seem to be another tool that blocks them out of the box. The prevalence of these widgets means they can report on almost all your browsing activity, which can then be linked to databases full of the social data you intentionally share.”
While Disconnect may be in early stages and not have a “significant direct impact” for the average user, the tool could be useful for those concerned about how different social tools are keeping track of your browsing habits. The extension is available for both Google Chrome and RockMelt.