How to stop the tracking of every digital move you make

Device lets you block your browsing habits, keep online life private

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Con­sumers’ dig­i­tal trails—from their brows­ing and social media habits to search-engine inquiries—are a boon to finan­cial insti­tu­tions, which can use this trea­sure trove of data to ana­lyze bor­row­ing risk and oth­er fac­tors. More than 3,000 ser­vices world­wide track and gath­er this data, aggre­gat­ing and sell­ing it for banks’ use, unbe­known to consumers.

The track­ers are gath­er­ing our brows­ing habits down to our mouse move­ment and all the data we’re enter­ing into forms,” said Chris­t­ian Ben­nefeld, co-founder and CEO of eBlock­er, a Ger­man start­up that has devel­oped a device that pro­vides com­plete online anonymity.

Some finan­cial insti­tu­tions use their own track­ers for pur­pos­es like improv­ing their web­sites and tai­lor­ing mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Bro­kers, on the oth­er hand, may gath­er infor­ma­tion like online pok­er habits, use of pay­day lenders and even mul­ti­ple cor­rec­tions to salary in an online loan calculator.

Relat­ed arti­cle: Con­sumers becom­ing much more pro­tec­tive of their privacy

Banks can take this brows­ing data and the aggre­gat­ed data from bro­kers and use algo­rithms for loan risk cal­cu­la­tion,” Ben­nefeld said.

An eBlock­er analy­sis of 10 major U.S. banks’ web­sites found a total of at least 110 third-par­ty track­ers in use. PNC had the biggest num­ber (33), fol­lowed by TD Bank (20) and BNY Mel­lon (14). On the low­er end were HSBC (2) and Wells Far­go (5).

We were sur­prised about the quan­ti­ty of track­ers on Amer­i­can web­sites and that Face­book and Google (track­ers) were wide­spread,” Ben­nefeld said. “In Ger­many, it would be pro­hib­it­ed, but I fear the U.S. is more lib­er­al in data bro­ker­age, and there are no neg­a­tive con­se­quences for banks for doing so.”

Com­pa­nies of all sizes use trackers

Small­er banks and cred­it unions appear to use the prac­tice as well, even if on a small­er scale. From an arbi­trary list of nine U.S. region­al banks and cred­it unions pro­vid­ed by Third Cer­tain­ty, eBlock­er found that all but one had web­site track­ers. One cred­it union used 19, includ­ing one that tracks and records mouse movements.

Chris­t­ian Ben­nefeld, eBlock­er co-founder and CEO

Ben­nefeld said it was remark­able to see that even most of the small­er banks use Google ser­vices to reveal “who are their cus­tomers and what their stand­ing is to Google.”

In com­par­i­son, you will hard­ly find a bank in Europe that is using Google ser­vices at all,” he said.

Bennefeld’s four-year-old com­pa­ny, eBlock­er, is hop­ing to attract U.S. cus­tomers who are con­cerned about track­ing prac­tices, com­mon for busi­ness­es of all kinds. The eBlock­er device uses a vari­ety of tech­niques, such as traf­fic rout­ing through a VPN or Tor, IP address anonymiz­ing, user agent spoof­ing, DNS spoof­ing and ad block­ing, to block data col­lec­tion and pro­vide online privacy.

We make sure you’re not leav­ing any traces on the inter­net,” Ben­nefeld said.

The device, which plugs into the home router, is pop­u­lar in Ger­many and Switzer­land, where it’s sold by retail­ers that are equiv­a­lent to Best Buy, accord­ing to Ben­nefeld. U.S. con­sumers can buy eBlock­er direct­ly from the com­pa­ny. The plan is to sell it through dis­trib­u­tors in the near future. If all goes well, a U.S. office will open by the first quar­ter of 2018.

The tim­ing to enter the U.S. mar­ket seems for­tu­itous, con­sid­er­ing that the recent con­gres­sion­al repeal of FCC’s pri­va­cy rules now allows ISPs to col­lect and sell cus­tomer data.

We feel we can help those con­sumers who are not trust­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the U.S., and our tech­nol­o­gy is per­fect to dis­guise cus­tomers from their providers,” Ben­nefeld said.

How it works

Once eBlock­er is con­nect­ed to the router, all inbound and out­bound TCP/IP pack­ets (from the brows­er only) are rout­ed to the device for what’s called deep pack­age inspec­tion. Using pat­tern-match­ing tech­nol­o­gy, the pack­ets are com­pared against known patterns.

We have a team com­pil­ing every day, from dif­fer­ent sources and from our users, the pat­terns of track­ing ser­vices,” Ben­nefeld said.

If a match­ing pack­et is found, it’s sim­ply not sent to the router. Ben­nefeld esti­mates that as much as 40 per­cent of web traf­fic is com­prised of track­ers, so eBlock­er can sig­nif­i­cant­ly speed up web browsing.

The device is com­pat­i­ble with all oper­at­ing sys­tems and can be used not only for com­put­ers and tablets but also while brows­ing the web on a smart TV. The plug-and-play device requires no tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, but tech-savvy users can buy the eBlockerOS soft­ware and instead make their own device using a Rasp­ber­ry Pi or Banana Pi.

A fam­i­ly ver­sion of eBlock­er allows for indi­vid­u­al­ized user pro­files. Ben­nefeld said a ben­e­fit for par­ents is the abil­i­ty to fil­ter out risky web­sites for their kids, as well as to set surf­ing timers and lim­it the hours when their chil­dren can be on the web.

Turn­ing the tables on tracking

Ben­nefeld, a math­e­mati­cian and com­put­er sci­en­tist, has first-hand knowl­edge of the track­ing indus­try. After work­ing for major data-secu­ri­ty and soft­ware com­pa­nies, 17 years ago he found­ed etrack­er, a Ger­man web-ana­lyt­ics and online-mar­ket­ing opti­miza­tion com­pa­ny. As the CEO for 13 years, Ben­nefeld made etrack­er a mar­ket leader. But he wasn’t hap­py about what he saw hap­pen­ing in the back­ground, Ben­nefeld said.

He invest­ed $1 mil­lion of his own funds into eBlock­er, which also has received mon­ey from a pub­lic inno­va­tion fund in Ham­burg. Sales have been brisk—$1.2 mil­lion last year, with the goal of dou­bling that this year.

An employ­ee base of 12 is poised to grow once a cur­rent round of fund­ing clos­es. A U.S. sub­sidiary already is in place, and Ben­nefeld sees the U.S. as a core market.

Plans are in the works for a mobile ver­sion and an enter­prise prod­uct, which Ben­nefeld expects to be in demand by legal prac­tices, doc­tors’ offices and oth­er busi­ness­es that han­dle sen­si­tive cus­tomer data.

We try to avoid all the mis­takes I’ve made with etrack­er,” Ben­nefeld said. “We are fol­low­ing a red­line, we have a focus, and we’re exe­cut­ing on that.”

More sto­ries relat­ed to online privacy:
With no glob­al stan­dard for data pri­va­cy, laws out­side U.S. dif­fer in scope
Pri­va­cy con­cerns influ­ence con­sumers’ deci­sions more often
15 mil­lion rea­sons to have a web­site pri­va­cy notice


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