David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

Online Privacy in the Social Media Age

Founder Interview

Disclosure: Abine, the online privacy company, has previously sponsored Hacker Noon.

Today, we’re going to catch up on the state of this startup — and find out what makes CEO Rob Shavell do what he does.

Could you share some of the numbers on Abine’s progress, scale and usage?

Nope. We’re a privacy company so we never share data with anyone :)

Jokes aside, we purposely do not track a lot of things about our users because that is not our business. We only make money only when customers pay us directly for subscriptions to Blur and DeleteMe (our main solutions).

We are able to share that we have over 3 million registered users, we make millions of dollars per year in revenue, and are cash-flow-positive — solely on revenues from our customers subscriptions. With all the data breaches and privacy concerns in the news such as Equifax, we are seeing customer growth of about 100% year on year.

Data brokers selling user data is a dark industry. There are many, many user data sources. How does DeleteMe ensure that it prevents data brokers from selling user data?

DeleteMe lists a set of data brokers that we are able to opt our customers out of completely. We prove this by delivering reports four times a year which show where we found our customers personal info listed and for sale, and when it was removed. Customers love these privacy reports because the evidence is simple to see when they get them; the “before and after,” if you will.

Of course DeleteMe cannot remove all personal info from all data brokers. No one can do that. New data brokers pop-up often, and some out of the US, are not bound by any legal or regulatory threats. So no removal service is 100% effective. That said, DeleteMe has become the #1 information removal service on the Web because it is effective and really does lower your profile.

What is the technical strength of Blur? I.e. What makes it the best technology solution to manage identities and passwords?

Blur has a technical foundation that is very similar to other modern password managers such as 1Password, Dashlane, and LastPass. We benchmark ourselves to them and to Google Chrome in terms of accuracy % of auto-fill and other such technical things. What sets Blur apart is the privacy. Not only does Blur block trackers (with a sophisticated white-list to make this smooth) but Blur also “Masks” any personal info customers want to keep private from any web site they choose. 55% of users mask their emails. 60% mask their mobile phone numbers. And 75% mask their credit cards. Masking simply means that any site you don’t want to have your real private email, phone number or credit card doesn’t get it. They get masked versions which forward emails, calls, and charges privately to your real email, phone and credit card. It just works.

You recently received a fairly broad privacy protection patent. How would you describe the patent in layman’s terms? What are the importance of patents to your tech company? And how would you recommend other tech startup CEOs approach patents in their overall business strategy?

Our patent protects our anti-tracking and identity masking technology where we let a person instantly protect their email, phone, and credit card by not having to disclose them to other companies.

Personally, I think the intellectual property “industry” and especially tech patents, are all screwed up. That said, I see patents as material for certain startups — especially ones that are innovating in large markets with many large enterprise companies circling around. Payments and identity protection certainly fit the bill for Abine. CEOs need to evaluate simply whether they are in such markets and have real inventions. If so, patenting your innovation is one part of the game.

Abine raised $6.47M in July 2011 from Atlas Venture and General Catalyst. That was over 6 years ago. Do you plan on raising another round? What’s your general strategy when it comes to growing through revenue vs. growing through investment?

We are profitable and have no plans for additional venture investment. Founders should grow by whatever means necessary as long as the growth is real growth — not manufactured by some inorganic trickery. As a privacy company, we’d prefer other companies to grow without selling the personal data of their users behind their users backs.

When you think about the future of the internet — how can it become better for user privacy?

Such a simple question, thank you for asking :) The internet has not been good for global privacy. Neither have mobile phones or the proliferation of video cameras. I think some of the newer blockchain protocols and technologies enabling trusted decentralized exchange hold some promise. I am cautiously pessimistic about the future of online privacy. I worry it will become a luxury good, affordable only to certain folks. Abine had a user review recently where the woman or man complained that we charged a premium price (it’s $39 a year) to be able to Mask and sync their data. Of course we think our pricing is fair, but if you’re used to a “behind your back advertising model” where services appear free, everything with a price seems expensive.

All that said, I definitely disagree with Mark Zuckerberg — and this recent HackerNoon writer (Sarvasv Kulpati) — that privacy is dead and that we’ve chosen to kill it. These opinions are misinformed, philosophically vapid, and technically unjustified. Anonymity is very difficult to get online but a reasonable expectation of privacy is totally doable — even for someone like my aunt — who once filled up her new Toyota Camry with diesel fuel by accident.

As a special offer, we’re giving 25% off Blur & DeleteMe for Hacker Noon Readers!

Get 25% Off. Keep up with Abine on Facebook & Twitter.

More by David Smooke

Topics of interest

More Related Stories