At SXSW in March 2014, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden helped put the spotlight on a once-obscure browser extension.In addition to TOR and NoScript, Snowden recommended that people looking to enhance their online security use Ghostery, a browser extension for Firefox and Chrome that lets users pick and choose what online trackers can monitor with web browsing habits.Snowden's endorsement was a turning point for Ghostery, a small software company that started in 2008, said Vice President of Product Larry Furr. But while the plug got Ghostery into the browsers of privacy-conscious Snowden fans, it didn't do much for the extension with the wider public.
"Certainly in the early days it was predominantly power users using Ghostery," Furr told me in an exclusive interview. "But as Ghostery goes mainstream, we wanted to make sure that it was easy to use and that anyone can derive value from it. They don't have to be a power user to be able to have a better browsing experience."
To that end, Ghostery on Monday evening launched version 6.0 of its eponymous browser extension. Initially available for Firefox, Ghostery 6.0 is a from-the-ground-up re-imagining of how to design a privacy-enhancing browser extension so that its features are more easily accessible to a mainstream audience. New for this version is a wizard that guides first-time users on how best to configure Ghostery to meet their needs (above), with clear options to enable or disable the different categories of trackers that Ghostery is able to block. There's eight of these categories, including advertising trackers, social media trackers, and website analytics services like Chartbeat.
Ghostery now also has a per site on and off switch that allows users to decide if they want to block all trackers on a site with the click of a mouse (above). This makes it so that users can whitelist all of their trusted websites as soon as they come across them and not merely by ticking a setting that's buried away somewhere."We tried to make it so that someone doesn't feel like they have to go get a degree in marketing technology in order to configure [Ghostery] to derive value from it," Furr said.
Ghostery isn't the only tool that can block ad trackers, of course, with others like Disconnect, AdBlock Plus, and uBlock Origin all able to prevent faceless corporations from being able to track your browsing habits across the web. But in speaking with Joseph Lorenzo Hall (who also had pre-release access to the extension), the Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology , what makes this latest release of Ghostery so compelling is this easy-to-understand user interface, which is the result of extensive testing over the previous year."I was really glad to hear that… they actually tested [the new user interface], which is a really important part of what's called privacy by design," Hall told me in a recent phone interview. This extensive testing, according to Hall, shows that Ghostery was serious about making a tool that was not only powerful, but that was also usable by everyday people and not just privacy buffs."We have hundreds of thousands of years as homo sapiens with the experience of things like sound and light," added Hall. "Light comes from the sun and bounces off our bodies and enters other people's eyes… The one thing that we lack online is the ability to have that intuitive understanding of what people are giving off in terms of datz. Tools like Ghostery can help you control or clamp down on this digital exhaust."Beyond design changes, Ghostery has also added the ability to sync these different settings across computers. Before, users had to manually fine tune Ghostery installations on a device-by-device basis. "What we had resoundingly heard from our users is that they're not just using Ghostery on one browser on one machine," said VP of Product Furr. "They're using Ghostery at home and in the office… Our fans were saying, 'Look, it's kind of a pain to have to make the same settings multiple times. Let me just sync those settings.'"I asked what the company thought about the overall ad-blocking debate, which became particularly acrimonious last fall alongside the release of iOS 9 (which added support for ad blockers in Safari). While Ghostery is primarily marketed as a privacy tool to block trackers from keeping tabs on users as they browse the web, there's no getting around the fact that it functions as a great ad-blocker, something online publishers are understandably worried about."As entrepreneurs we have to be eternal optimists, otherwise we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning," Ghostery CEO Scott Meyer said. "I wish [the debate] was better, but I don't think the situation is quite as hopeless as everyone thinks. For better or for worse capitalism ultimately will force the issue to some type of reasonable conclusion."Until that happens, users will continue to take matters into their owns hands, relying on tools like Ghostery to ensure they're not superstitiously followed around the web whenever they open a browser.