Game-changing Browser Extension Anonymizes Your Web Activity

April 12, 2012 | 09:36
The web browser extension Privly enables you to use social networks like Facebook, Gmail and Twitter anonymously.

Privly is a new standard enabling users to take back control over their content on the social web. The browser add-on allows users to share information on any HTML site without actually storing the data on the host’s servers.

For instance, if you send a tweet via Privly, the message is visible in the twitter stream as it normally would but the actual data is stored on a Privly server. That way, you stay in full control of your content: you can delete it, restrict access to it and keep it from being data mined.

Privly started as a pet project of PhD student Sean McGregor and four other computer science students of Oregon State University. Now McGregor is lead developer of the open source project that is rapidly attracting more contributors as Privly gains momentum.

“Web companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook make you choose between modern technology and your privacy”, says McGregor. “But we know this to be a false choice. If we don’t solve the privacy problem now things are going to get a lot worse”. With the browser tool, the Privly developers aim to be part of the solution.

So here is how it works. The content is typed into the Twitter text box but instead of submitting it to Twitter, the browser sends it to a Privly server. The server stores the content and returns a link which goes into the Twitter text box. Now anyone using a browser with the Privly add-on can view the content in the Twitter feed because the extension pulls the data from the Privly server into the site. Those who don’t have the add-on will see a link that sends them to the content.

Privly is in the early stages of development and isn’t completely secure yet. One vulnerability is the central server where the content is stored. Although Privly promises not to mine or sell the data on their servers, they could be subpoenaed or hacked. To make sure no one can access the data, the developers want to add a function that encrypts the data before it is sent to the server. And in the future there need not be a central server at all because the encrypted content can be shared over peer-to-peer networks.

In order to get the resources for further development McGregor submitted the project to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Hoping not only to attract money but also attention from open source developers who might be interested in joining the project. With still five days to go the project has already surpassed its $10.000 target and developers are offering their skills. You can join the Privly project here.

Should Privly be widely implemented across the web, it would be a real game changer. The web has developed in a direction where online engagement is often enjoyed at the price of giving up privacy. And with the cloud as the web’s eternal memory the trace of one’s online activity can’t be erased. This has spurred a debate on the right to be forgotten, especially in Europe where regulators want to give citizens the right to have their personal data removed from the systems of data controllers.

Privly would put a technical tool in the hands of users that gives them immediate control of their data.

It would also affect the way the web is monetized. Many online companies have business models based on targeted ads and selling personal data to third parties. Google earns 97% of its 33 billion revenue from advertising. It would be kind of ironic if the tech industry that has rendered so many business models obsolete -most notably that of the content industry- would find its own business models outdated within two decades of its inception.

Image: Privly logo
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