Startup Seeks to Help Users Maintain Online Anonymity

TrackOFF, a Baltimore-based startup, recently released the next generation of its eponymous privacy software, which prevents websites from tracking users' online activity.

by Sarah Gantz, The Baltimore Sun / July 19, 2016

(TNS) -- Ever scroll through your Facebook feed only to find an advertisement for the exact shoes you'd been eyeing earlier? Think it's weird to get an email from your favorite online retailer with pictures of the items you last browsed?

Retailers, search engine companies and who knows who else are tracking your every move on the internet with increasingly sophisticated and hard-to-hide-from tactics.

A Baltimore software startup called TrackOFF thinks it has a solution. TrackOFF recently released the next generation of its eponymous privacy software, which prevents websites from tracking users' online activity, and now has its sights set on mobile devices — where internet browsing is just a small piece of the personal data that gets mined by others.

"When you talk about mobile, you're not just talking about privacy for browsing," said Chandler Givens, the company's co-founder and CEO. "Our objective here is to make it a one-stop shop for consumers who have privacy concerns."

In addition to website tracking, smartphones have geolocation features that tell Google or Apple where you are. Nearly every application you download asks for permission to access a wish list of your personal information.

Before using Facebook's mobile app, for example, you first must give it permission to access your contact list, read your text messages and change your calendar.

Companies use the information they gather from your phone or your online browsing habits to piece together a picture of who you are as a consumer, which can help them better target products and services to you.

"Why do you think Pokemon Go is free? It's all the data they're collecting," said Rick Forno, assistant director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Cybersecurity, of the suddenly popular virtual critter-catching game. "You are the product."

Mobile privacy is a much bigger challenge than TrackOFF has tackled in the past, but one that company leaders think is a natural progression from its specialty in internet privacy.

Founded in 2015 by Givens and Ryan Flach, the firm's chief technology officer, TrackOFF employs about eight people at its new office in Mount Vernon.

The firm's privacy software was designed to protect against the latest internet user tracking tactic — digital fingerprints.

Through digital fingerprinting, websites use uniquely identifiable information about your computer to track your online movements. Digital fingerprints are harder to evade or erase than cookies, the common trackers left behind on your computer by the websites you visit that are easy to delete.

Recently the company debuted an updated, more advanced version of its program, called TrackOFF Elite, which also blocks tracking from cookies and establishes a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, which makes it difficult for companies to track a user's location.

While privacy seekers may in the past have had to acquire separate programs for each of these protections, TrackOFF is designed to bring all three services into one offering.

The original version of the program costs $34.95 a year; TrackOFF Elite costs $59.95 a year.

The company is currently in the research and development stage of translating its technology to mobile and hopes to move forward early next year.

Forno thinks privacy features such as those being developed by TrackOFF will have the greatest appeal among corporate and government groups.

Many individual users tend to accept compromises to their privacy in exchange for the convenience or entertainment apps offer, he said. But organizations that issue smartphones to their employees likely will be more cautious about what private information escapes their devices, he said.

Spending on cybersecurity services, a small part of which is privacy protection, is growing rapidly. Cybersecurity Ventures, a research firm focused on the industry, projected in its latest quarterly report that $1 trillion will be spent on cybersecurity, most of that by businesses, nonprofits and governments, between 2017 and 2021.

Privacy and security challenges — both online and on smartphones — are growing, Forno said. As soon as someone finds a way to block one tracking technique, a new method emerges.

"It's like a wave of peaks and valleys," he said. "It's a constant tug of war."

©2016 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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