Ex-Googler releases big update to Disconnect, a data-blocking tool

The rise of social media means companies are collecting more and more of our personal data every time we go online. The government has been slow to respond — or even understand — the issue, leading some people to adopt technology tools as a way to protect their privacy.

Disconnect.me is one example. Launched in 2010 by a former Google(s goog) engineer, the company provides “Facebook Disconnect” and other tools to stop the “Like” button and other widgets from siphoning data about your web browsing habits. On Monday, Disconnect launched a major update that not only provides a better picture of which companies want to track you, but also improves web speed.

Disconnect 2: what it is, how it works

In 2010, Google engineer Brian Kennish created a popular extension for the Chromse browser that stopped Facebook(s fb) tracking. Soon after, feeling conflicted about working for a major data collector, he left Google to work on privacy issues full-time. He formed the company Disconnect along with consumer rights’ attorney Casey Oppenheim and another Googler.

The team’s first move was to replicate the features of Facebook Disconnect and use them to shut out other data-collecting platforms like Google, Twitter and Yahoo. Kennish made these companies his target because their widgets appear on many of the most popular websites on the internet: sites that offer information about health or news or weather. These widgets, which invite a reader to “like” or “share,” also act as backdoor portals that disclose what you’re viewing to advertising and analytic companies. For instance, the social media companies help ad firms learn when when you visit sites like “6 Things I wish I knew about Cancer.”

Now, the company has unveiled Disconnect 2, which Kennish describes as the tool he wanted to build all along. In a phone interview, he and Oppenheim explained that the new version is meant to embody three goals: privacy, speed and “don’t break the internet.” The company says this last goal means that Disconnect’s filtering tools won’t interrupt or interfere with a user’s ordinary browsing experience — even as it screens out more than 2,000 of the biggest data-collecting sites.

Disconnect 2, which you can install on your Chrome or Safari browser, also has a new look that provides much more information at a glance than the previous version. The icon sits in the top right of the browser; here’s what you see when you click on it:

Disconnect 2 screenshot

The three letters at the top, which represent Facebook, Google and Twitter, are displayed separately because their tracking tools are found on so many websites. The user can also see the number of other tracking sites broken down by category. The drop-down arrows provide specific information about those other tracking sites. Meanwhile, hovering over the bars at the bottom shows how much faster the page loads without all the tracking tools (in this case, 28 percent) as well as how much less data is being consumed:

Disconnect 2 screenshot w/arrows

Finally, users can also pull up an image of just which companies trying to track them on a given webpage. If you click “Visualize page,” this is what you see:

Disconnect visual screenshot

The above image shows that BuzzFeed is one of the dozens of sites, including advertisers, data firms and analytics companies, that request information when I visit the Huffington Post (I don’t mean to single out either BuzzFeed or HuffPo — a similar graphic appears if you visit Reuters, ESPN, Weather.com or nearly any other well-known site — including GigaOM).

What Disconnect 2 means for users, publishers and advertisers

The new version of Disconnect should be a hit with privacy-craving internet users, who will welcome the opportunity to throw up a bigger shield between their social media identities and companies that want their data. The faster, less-cluttered browsing experience is also appealing. Publishers and advertisers, however, will not be giving Kennish and crew a high-five anytime soon.

That’s because, in addition to cutting off tracking sites, Disconnect 2 also strips out many of the ads that appear on a website (I visited Drudge Report, for instance, and the prime top-of-the-page ad had vanished). This is hardly good news for publishers navigating an already challenging ad economy. Advertisers too will be unimpressed since the data Disconnect is unplugging is the lifeblood of popular “retargeting” campaigns.

On the other hand, publishers and advertisers can take comfort in the fact that only a relative handful of users are sophisticated enough to understand the tracking issue in the first place — let alone download a special browser extension to stop it. According to the company, there are one million active users a week for the original Disconnect. While advertisers may fear a future surge in the tool’s popularity, that number alone will not have them quaking in their boots.

Disconnect 2: no match for the movement to mobile

While Disconnect 2 has the potential to throw a wrench into the advertising operations of Facebook and Google, it’s also unlikely to check the larger erosion of privacy taking place all around us. The reason for this is not because Disconnect 2 is an esoteric product. The problem is instead that its arrival coincides with a major shift in how we explore the internet.

Today, the most serious threat to our privacy is not the screen on our desk but the one in our pocket. Our smartphones are not just little computers — they are also GPS tracking devices that record our every movement and many our thoughts. Consumers happily enable this process with toys that blare their location like Foursquare and Facebook. And the trend is only accelerating (see Om’s trenchant thoughts in “Why Facebook Home bothers me“).

In the face of this voluntary surrender of our location and habits, does Disconnect’s attempt to staunch the tide of desktop data even matter? It can certainly help, of course. At a time when Facebook is collecting not just our online habits but our offline ones too (the company is now partnering with retailers like drug stores), any tool that will deprive them of data will be a comfort to privacy advocates. Overall, though, Disconnect is unlikely to be a game changer.

Kennish appears to recognize this. In our phone interview, he said the company is at work on tools to limit the spread of data from mobile devices. He also stresses that one of Disconnect’s primary goals is education and awareness. By distributing a tool that helps average people understand how their data is collected, the company can help build a critical mass aware of what is happening and what is at stake.

Finally, here’s a video in which the company explains Disconnect 2 in its own words:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvem1Z66C7Q?rel=0]

Correction: This story was amended at 3pm on Monday to state that the original version of Disconnect has 1 million active users, not 1 million downloads.

(Image by  Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock)