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C2E2 Cosplay Fun and Ghostery Security

Andy Kahl of Ghostery. Photo by Barbara Iverson
Andy Kahl of Ghostery with a Jedi Knight. Photo by Barbara Iverson

The Comic and Entertainment conference C2E2 was in town and  cosplayers were everywhere. The cosplay contest, had judges with expertise in fashion and cosplay this year, signaling that cosplay is getting more mainstream activity. [pullquote]cos·play ˈkäzˌplā/noun: cosplay the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and animé.[/pullquote]

In addition to cosplay, which is fun, there were some scary or at least serious matters at C2E2. Ghostery had a booth. Ghostery provides a privacy protection browser extension that Edward Snowden recommended to the world when he spoke at SXSW this year.

Andy Kahl, Senior Director of Research at Ghostery, was showing me the consumer side of Ghostery, and  Ghostrank, the opt-in anonymous information sharing part of the business and is where the money comes from. 

His voice trailed off, and he wasn’t looking at me anymore. Andy’s not rude, in fact he is very personable. But even at C2E2, the comic and entertainment expo, a walking, larger-than-human size Transformer was distracting.

Tom DePetrillo, of Rhode Island as a Transformer. Photo by Barbara Iverson
Tom DePetrillo, of Rhode Island as a Transformer. Photo by Barbara Iverson

Andy was at C2E2 to man the Ghostery booth and to talk about “A Data-Driven Comic Universe” on Friday, April 25. Ghostery users see all the “company tags” that are grabbing cookies as they click from site to site in Chrome and Firefox and other browsers.[pullquote]Ghostery Ghostery[/pullquote]

With Ghostery installed, they can turn these “cookie monsters” on-and-off for any site.

Paradoxically, this company that gives away a privacy-preserving tool, asks to be able to view what and how cookies are proffered on the web. But its not personal.

Kahl explained Ghostery’s interest in cookies this way:  “We’re very careful about making this distinction – the data we collect is NOT about our users, it’s about the data collection technologies our users encounter. And that data is NOT used to target advertisements to users, it’s used by sites and data collection companies to audit their relationships with one another.”

Ghostrank is an opt in service that asks users to let Ghostery follow their browsing and collect some information about the way they interact with their web brower, like version or af (above the fold.) No personal information is collected, so even if the Ghostery data were to be subpeoned by the NSA, Ghostery has no personally identifiable information from any users, according to Kahl.

He was at C2E2 because people are getting interested in their online privacy and because lots of comics artists and writers are self-publishing these days, via blogs and CMS. For the self-publishers, there’s a need to balance being able to follow users to generate advertising revenue,  with not creeping your audience out because you are collecting private data via cookies.

Demo of Ghostrank tracking. Photo by Barbara Iverson
Demo of Ghostrank tracking. Photo by Barbara Iverson

The data donation feature Ghostrank, “hashes out IP addresses and only store an encrypted string of text” with any identifying information stripped out from URLs” as Kahl described.

A comic publisher can buy this to help  target ads. Kahl  discussed the shrinking number of outlets where comic artists can get work published, and the increasing number of artists and writers doing self-publishing.

Kahl made the case that being able to track users in a transparent way, where their data is anonymized is a better trade-off for sites and consumers.

Ghostery is open about what it is doing, and he contrasted that with Facebook, Google, and other large companies which are not transparent about what information they collect from us. As Kahl’s session ended, Superman wandered into the room, with a Storm Trooper right behind, but the guy in front of me that had been editing a comic during the session went to talk to Andy about Ghostery.

(The paragraph on Ghostrank was edited for clarity.)

A clarification of Ghostery’s practice of collecting information about cookies was made on 5/12/2014.

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