Tracking, data and disclosure: Ghostery and Evidon

This post has a follow-up post, which I wrote after I was contacted by a representative from Evidon’s PR firm. Check out Part II here.

A couple of weeks ago I came across an article that mentioned something about the popular privacy extension Ghostery which surprised me. Ghostery is owned by Evidon, a marketing intelligence and privacy company.

Ghostery is the most comprehensive privacy and anti-tracking extension available right now, and I have been using it for about two years — which is why this article caught me a little off guard. You may argue that I should not have been so astonished: the extension is free, and there is obviously a lot of work going in to it to make it as comprehensive as it is. But my reaction was not entirely unrepresentative of Ghostery users, and indeed I’ve observed similar initial suspicions arise in at least three people upon reading similar articles.

Lets be clear: Evidon, although formerly known as Better Advertising, is not in the business of collecting data to track users. While they will use data on behalf of its customers, it will not “collect, sell or trade advertising inventory or data that targets consumers” — see their core principles. They appears to highly value transparency in advertising — and I think its fantastic that there are companies in this arena promoting this.

Where does Ghostery come in? Well for one, Evidon also produces a report on the state of third party tracking and privacy on the web. This report is compiled from ‘anonymous’ data collected by Ghostery from those who opt in to the Ghostrank program. So far as I can tell, Ghostery provides a free, high quality extension, with the backing of everything Evidon knows about online advertising, third party and behavioural tracking. Ghostery offers the option to send said anonymous data back to itself and Evidon about trackers encountered, and this data helps both companies.

Yet in comparison to how prominently Ghostery’s name and logo features on Evidon’s site, the name ‘Evidon’ is practically buried on Ghostery’s. Mitigating the perception of, well — sneakiness — that this engenders is one reason I feel that Ghostery should do better job of explaining its relationship with Evidon at the point of download. It is uncomfortably easy to overlook this connection if you do not know, already, what you are looking for.

In the Chrome web-store the author or source of the extension is listed as, which is true; and in the Mozilla add-ons manager, the listed authors are José María Signanini and Felix Shnir, which is also true. But due to the nature of the extension and the business of Ghostery’s owners, I feel this leaves some transparency to be desired. The people who want to use an extension like Ghostery are likely to be a rather sceptical bunch, or cynical, or mistrustful — insert whatever you feel to be the appropriate term. As such, if this group feels deceived, there is likely to be more backlash than would be incurred from elsewhere.

In summary? Ghostery is still the best privacy extension available due to how comprehensive it is in blocking all manner of trackers. But:

  1. While Evidon might not be an advertising company precisely, it is still in that business.
  2. If Ghostery does not want its image to suffer as a result of this relationship, it needs to be more up-front with its users than another company, with a different user base, business and ownership would need to be.