Abine Battles for Consumers’ Online Privacy in Post-Facebook Era

12/6/11Follow @gthuang

How annoying is the Web? I’m not talking about the nonstop distractions, the social-media window into human stupidity, or even the endless pop-up ads that block your view of the screen. I’m talking about the utter loss of privacy that most consumers have suffered online, yet rarely think about.

Sure, the Web is a net positive (we hope), but there are costs. When you visit any website, you leave a record of who you are, where you are, and what you looked at. That by itself might not be traceable to your specific identity, but over time, sites can track you via social media, share buttons (Facebook “likes,” even if you don’t click them or log in), check-ins, and other online activities. Companies can then show you personalized ads based on your product preferences, zip code, and history of Google searches. Worse, they can create a profile of your activities, often combined with data from public records, and sell it to other companies to do whatever they want with it.

Trying to combat all of this is a small Boston tech startup called Abine (pronounced “uh-BEAN”). Its name stands for “A Bit Is Not Enough.” The company is working to give consumers more control over their personal information on the Web. I’ve heard a fair amount about this startup over the past year, but I recently had a chance to meet co-founder Andrew Sudbury and CEO Bill Kerrigan over a beer.

The timing seems good for Abine, what with the massive flak Facebook has been taking over user privacy lately. As Sudbury points out (along with others), Facebook treats its users not as customers, but as products. Meaning that each social network member’s profile, with its likes, recommendations, and social connections, can be thought of as just part of a $100 billion machine for marketers.

“We don’t want our users to be our product,” Sudbury says. Instead, he says, consumers pay Abine to help shield them from Web tracking and other misuses of their personal information. “We want to sell privacy services,” he says. “We want to be at the point of contact between the user and the net. We want them to use the Web without worrying that all their data is flying out the door.” For example, “users think they’re going to Boston.com, but they’re really going to 10 other websites,” Sudbury says. (That’s because their browser fetches different pieces of the website from other sites—things like ads and snippets of code that let advertisers know a little bit about who each visitor is.)

So what does Abine do about it? The company makes add-ons for browsers like Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome; at the moment, different pieces of its software work for different browsers. The software, called Do Not Track Plus, blocks unwanted tracking by detecting all tracking requests from the browser and stopping the flow of information out, sort of like an outgoing firewall. The company also sells a service called DeleteMe, whereby consumers can remove themselves from online databases such as Spokeo; for a custom fee, users also can ask Abine to remove individual pictures, search results, or their Facebook or AOL profiles from the Web (this usually involves manual labor like sending letters to the relevant companies).

Abine started in 2009, founded by Sudbury, Rob Shavell, and Eugene Kuznetsov. They were literally “three guys and a dog” in the beginning, Sudbury says. The startup raised a $5.2 million Series A round led by Atlas Venture and General Catalyst Partners earlier this year. The company says it will be pushing 20 employees by the end of this year; it is actively hiring software developers and a handful of marketers.

Right now the biggest challenge is acquiring users. Abine is going after a mainstream, non-tech-savvy audience. Kerrigan, the CEO, says the company’s go-to-market strategy involves three steps. The first step is direct customer acquisition through search, display, and blogs. The second step involves making key acquisitions of privacy technologies and services (such as the acquisition of the T.A.C.O. browser add-on from last year). And the third step, down the road, will be forming partnerships with companies that have large customer bases in Internet security technologies, services, and identity theft protection.

At the end of the day, Sudbury sees his company playing a crucial role in the evolution of online privacy. “All these companies are taking advantage of technologies that people don’t understand,” he says, “to do all kinds of profiling that people would find unacceptable if they could tell in the real world” what was going on. “The result is massive amounts of data collected about you, which you have no control over,” he says.

If Sudbury has anything to say about it, Abine will soon be changing that equation.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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