Privacy Advisor

Hack the Trackers Taps Into the Post-Snowden Zeitgeist

NYC-based event will bring together tech developers to collaboratively create online privacy-enhancing tools

November 5, 2013

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

What do you get when you put a group of talented, self-motivated developers, tech-savvy judges and folks who built one of the Internet’s most-successful online privacy tools into the same room? This coming Saturday, you’ll get Hack the Trackers.

Created by Ghostery, a privacy-enhancing browser service owned by Evidon, the hackathon aims to develop a new generation of online privacy tools by inviting developers to work together on open-sourced technology and then be judged by selected experts. “If data is the new oil,” the event home page states, “unwanted tracking is the oil spill—and it needs to be contained.”

Ghostery is no stranger to “containing” such online oil spills. The service, which can be used in a browser or as a mobile app, helps detect online cookies, beacons and other tracking technology to help users understand and decide who they are being tracked by. In just four years, the online service went from having 250,000 users to more than 20 million, according to Evidon Data Analysis Director Andy Kahl. 

“What’s rewarding is that quite a lot of our users buy into a user-based community,” he said. Since so many of Ghostery’s users are developers, it made sense for the company to tap into their user base to create new tools. “We realized maybe we could have these folks come together, build off of Ghostery, or build something on their own.”

Hack the Trackers is set to run all day—from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.—in New York City on November 9 at WeWork Lounge. It’s sort of a public beta of the hackathon events the company would like to expand upon, Kahl said, and there are plans to roll out similar events in the coming year—perhaps in Chicago and Dallas. Attendees can form groups and then have approximately seven hours to create their product.

Three judges will then review the products and announce three finalists. Those chosen then are given a “few” weeks to refine their idea before being posted online for user voting. The winning team will have their product featured alongside the Ghostery team at South by Southwest next March. And SXSW is no small event.

Judges include Advertising Age Data Reporter Kate Kaye, independent researcher Ashkan Soltani and Tapad VP of Products & Analytics Viviane Chang.

Planning originally started last March, long before Edward Snowden’s NSA surveillance disclosures. And now more and more users are clamoring for online protection and more and more businesses are building out online privacy services.

Last month, Financial Times reported on the burgeoning privacy-enhancing technology industry and its rising profits. Startups, venture capital and established businesses—from Private Internet Access to Mozilla—are all investing in online privacy-enhancing tools. Privacy startup Personal, a digital vault service, has raised $4 million in venture capital. WhiteHat Security recently released a new open-sourced browser for iOS that blocks ads by default. And just last week, Silent Circle and Lavabit announced the formation of the Dark Mail Alliance, to help build a fully encrypted e-mail service. The move comes after both companies shut down their e-mail services rather than share their user’s data with the U.S. government (Snowden had reportedly used Lavabit’s service.) Anonymous VPN service CryptoSeal also recently shut down its service rather than risk government intervention.

So the time for expediting growth in privacy-enhancing tools seems ripe. Kahl is optimistic about Hack the Trackers. “Hopefully this will gain some notoriety,” Kahl said, adding that the Summer of Snowden has definitely increased the number of participants. “It’s certainly a topic in the front of many of our users’ minds. Privacy is a subjective thing and it all starts with transparency. You can’t make decisions about privacy if you don’t know what is being done.” 

Read more by Jedidiah Bracy:
U.S. Intel Officials Defend Programs; EU Fallout Continues
FTC’s Brill to Technologists: This Is Your Call to Arms
Acxiom, MasterCard CPOs Talk Transparency, De-identification, FTC Consent Orders
Cato Conference: We Have Problems, Is NSA Biggest One?