More than 1 million people are using apps and browser extensions each week from Disconnect, the anti-tracking, anti-ad targeting startup to block how third-party sites track your online movements and then serve ads based on those movements. Now it’s taking its campaign to the next generation. Today, the company is launching Disconnect Kids, a free iOS app designed specifically for children (and their parents) to help them control how their web- and app-browsing activity is used, and to educate them about online privacy in the process. It claims that it is the first iOS app designed to “prevent data about your web-browsing and in-app activity from ever leaving your device.”
And given the ongoing revelations about PRISM, the National Security Agency and Internet privacy, there is a kind of poetic justice in the app, too: the technology powering Disconnect Kids was built by Patrick Jackson, an engineer who previously worked for none other than the NSA and now heads up Disconnect’s mobile efforts (one of the company’s new hires after announcing a $3.5 million raise in June this year).
“We’re able to leverage the iOS platform to prevent invisible tracking services from collecting browsing history, in-app activity, location, and other info from a user’s iPhone or iPad,” he said in a statement. Casey Oppenheim, a co-founder at Disconnect, tells TechCrunch that both Android and desktop web versions of the app are also “in the works.”
The idea behind Disconnect Kids is to tap into the hundreds of mobile tracking companies that currently collect data about the browsing and app activity (usually to serve more targeted ads, but also for other purposes in the apps themselves). While a lot of controls have been put into place for apps aimed specifically at children, there is a whole swathe of apps and sites that are used by children as well as adults, which are not restricted in the same way.
“Disconnect Kids aims to close this loophole by letting you actively block major mobile tracking companies and the network connections they try to make to your family’s devices,” notes co-founder and ex-Googler Brian Kennish in a statement. “Until now, nobody had figured out how to stop personal data from leaving an iOS device.”
Disconnect Kids is not the first effort to make sites less tracking-invasive for younger users. There is the COPPA directive from the FTC that covers how apps and sites have to clearly state what information they use about minor users. In the U.K., the Office of Fair Trading is also scrutinizing and considering legislation over how freemium apps and games directed at kids are collecting information. There are also proprietary implementations like Zoodle’s Kid Mode, the Y Combinator-backed Kytephone, KIDO’Z and Play Safe, and every mobile OS now has parental controls built in.
Disconnect Kids takes this one step further to cover all apps used on a device, regardless of what other controls may oversee some aspects of browsing behavior. For example, Oppenheim explains, “COPPA allows sites and apps not directed at children (think YouTube) to continue tracking and targeting unless the site has ‘actual knowledge’ that a child is using the device, which sites and apps often don’t know. So our app is actually aimed at empowering families to pro-actively block tracking and targeting of children even on COPPA compliant sites and apps.”
For now, all of Disconnect’s products remain free and “pay what you want,” a model afforded by the startup’s B Corporation, semi-charitable status, also picked up earlier this year. In future, this could evolve to a more concrete business model, Oppenheim tells us. “It’s possible we’ll make future features premium,” he says.
That stands in contrast to Reputation.com, another site that is banking its business on the increasing consumer demand (and awareness) of data tracking. Its solution is to put all of that information into a “data vault” that users can then better control — which could potentially mean handing over to third parties anyway, but at least getting better compensated for it, and doing so with full awareness of what’s happening. The company has raised more than $68 million, and acquired a number of smaller properties, to make a business of this effort. “They raised a huge amount of money for that idea and I’m interested to see how it works out,” notes Oppenheim.
The Disconnect Kids app is designed with simplicity in mind — so in that regard, and considering that many adult consumers don’t think about or know much about how advertising tracking and targeting works, this could be useful for more than just children.
You can see the app in action in the video below: