Firms offer 'dark social' to protect your privacy

Man texting mobile phone
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Firechat began as an app that allowed people to communicate in areas where reception was spotty, and it was initially intended for festivals such as Burning Man. Instead, it made headlines when it was used during the Hong Kong protests to help people communicate during the Umbrella Revolution of September 2014.

On Wednesday, Firechat creators Open Garden announced it was updating the app to add off-the-grid messaging technology called "OM" that doesn't use cell phone services or wireless Internet. It also affords another luxury: completely off-the-grid conversations. While the app won't automatically use "OM," it can be selected as an option for those who would rather keep their messages clandestine.

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"(Data privacy is) getting more and more to the forefront of people's consciousness," said Christophe Daligault, chief marketing officer of Open Garden. "There's chatter about the snoopers. Geotargeting and governments are trying to provide a number of ways for people to not be able to communicate privately, and there's a growing concern of a cat-and-mouse game."

The increasing demand data privacy

"OM" works by bouncing messages through a network of users until it gets to the recipient. While not instantaneous, it would take just 5 percent of the city to be on Firechat to create blanket coverage, with an average delivery time of 10 minutes.

"It creates a new way to communicate that reaches further and helps you in all the situations that you would be stuck without Internet access," Daligault said.

More consumers are concerned about their information being shared online, especially as social media platforms and other third-party online data sharing services use technology services to collect knowledge on personal habits. Eight-four percent of Americans said they felt "a lot" or a "tremendous amount" of responsibility to protect their information, according to a 2015 study by the National CyberSecurity Alliance.

Sam Rehman, chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm Arxan Technologies, said as more consumers rely on digital services to make their lives easier, they may be trading their information safety. For example, many rely on mobile apps to access and share financial, medical and other personal information with trusted individuals. It also makes these apps a target for hackers, who can sell this data for money.

"Consumers should generally be concerned about their personal data being compromised, particularly with the accelerated shift towards the 'Internet of Things'—the increasing interconnectivity of systems and devices increases the attack surface and access points for malicious attack or even unintentional exposure," Rehman said.

It's increasing the demand for "dark social" apps that provide ways to talk through on digital media without leaving an easily traceable footprint. Snapchat's messages disappear after being seen or read (although not necessarily securely). Meanwhile, Yahoo's new LiveText livestream video chat service will also have conversation delete after the user closes the session. A December 2014 RadiumOne study found out that 93 percent of its survey takers had used a "dark social" service to share content, more than three times the rate they used Facebook for the same purposes.

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It's also leading to an increase in popularity of ad-blocking services, which also promise to stop companies from collecting data on users for digital advertising targeting. A PageFair and Adobe report estimated there are 144 million people who use ad-blocking services globally, a number which grew 70 percent between June 2013 and June 2014.

Adblock Plus, a service that stops ads from showing up online, said that 10 percent of its users also opt into extra EasyPrivacy protection as an added layer to stop data-collecting services from getting stats on their online proclivities. That number is increasing.

Gabriel Cubbage, director of competitor service Adblock, said that it was only a matter of time that machine learning, processor speed and leaked information from hacks gets pieced together and used in real time to serve advertising or even facial recognition.

"You might see an ad that knows where you went to high school, recognizes your face and changes a digital billboard on a street to reflect that you just had a baby," Cubbage said. "Or, you might get augmented reality for smartphones where you fire up this app at another person, and you can find who they are and where they are from. Stitching this information together from places like their Facebook profile, can be publicly inferred through a smart software solution."

Why you shouldn't fear data mining

Raghav Gupta, online video technology platform Ooyala's general manager of Europe, Middle East and the Africa, points out that data-based advertising, which relies on getting private information in order to better target the consumer, is one of the ways consumers are "paying" for the free online services they demand these days.

"In this age of 'big data,' consumers are still getting to grips with the trade-offs involved between controlling and valuing their own data and the rewards, implicit and explicit, that ensue," he said. "This is upending the 'social contract' that has existed between consumers and media for decades. In general, consumers understand that they must give something in order to receive the content they love. Whether that be paying for content through subscriptions or getting free content through an ad-based model, this 'social contract' ensures that content providers can continue producing the content for their viewers."

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Brands use the data to create better-targeted ads, so consumers won't have be subjected to irrelevant products that waste their time. Already, companies are working with platforms like Ooyala that have anti-ad blocking technology, which trick the ad blockers into letting their ads through.

And, digital media companies are aware of data leaks and are actively working to make sure private information doesn't end up where it should not.

"Companies are developing apps that are increasingly utilizing advanced security technologies such as application code protection and key protection—both of these security approaches help lock down applications to preserve the integrity and confidentiality of the mobile app and the sensitive consumer data contained within them," Arxan Technologies' Rehman said. "These approaches reduce risk, thwart the efforts of attackers, and are ultimately designed to help consumers access and share their personal data with greater confidence."

But, rather than pit advertisers against private citizens in this data war, Ooyala's Gupta said that if advertisers can be open about what they are using the data for and provide meaningful, premium types of advertising that add to users' experience, then consumers may feel more comfortable leaving their information out there.

"This can be done via transparency to consumers as to the use of their data and thoughtful, considered advertising products that are a fair value exchange for the consumer's time," Gupta said.