- Zoé Vilain, chief strategy and privacy officer at Jumbo Privacy, spoke to Business Insider about how she and her team protect their data and identities on the internet.
- Vilain said her team uses the privacy-focused browser Brave, as well as VPN services.
- She added people never really have any privacy when using social media, but to her mind wellness, dating, and e-commerce apps are actually the worst for user privacy — because people are less aware the services harvest data.
- Because of her work, Business Insider named Vilain to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming consumer tech in Europe.
- Visit Business Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.
As the pandemic has supercharged our digital lives, consumers have to be more mindful than ever about how much of their data is being siphoned off by companies without their knowledge.
Few people consider what companies actually do with their personal data when posting on social media or shopping online — especially as the pandemic has made it all but impossible to avoid online services.
For Zoé Vilain, thinking about where that data goes is her day job.
Vilain is chief strategy and privacy officer at Jumbo Privacy, thinking about ways consumers can protect their privacy without poring through thousands of pages of terms and conditions.
Jumbo is a privacy management app that launched in April 2019, and in June this year raised $8 million in Series A funding from investors including Mark Zuckerberg’s former mentor Roger McNamee.
Vilain gave Business Insider some tips and tricks she and her team at Jumbo use to keep their private data as safe as possible, and told us which apps she thinks funnel away the most data behind-the-scenes without their users’ knowledge.
Brave browser and VPNs
“I think the favorite tool in the office — besides Jumbo of course — is Brave,” she said.
Brave is a privacy-focused browser which launched its 1.0 version last year after being cofounded by former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich in 2015. A Brave spokesperson told Business Insider the upstart browser has 22 million monthly active users.
“A lot of us are using it. It’s fast, the UX [user experience] is very good […] It blocks trackers, it doesn’t share your IP address,” Vilain said.”It’s not 100% bulletproof, but it’s better than using the browsers we are using right now if you want to protect your privacy,” she said, having referring to popular browsers like Google Chrome.
Turning to phone usage, lots of employees on the Jumbo team use VPNs, Vilain said.
VPNs (virtual private networks) are extensions which can mask your IP address and location. Vilain said members of the Jumbo team tend to use NordVPN and Tunnelbear.
Digital security nonprofit Top10VPN put ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Cyberghost on its picks for top five VPNs of 2020. It’s worth mentioning there are plenty of free VPNs on the market but these are best avoided if you want to preserve your data security.
“Free VPN apps tend to be riddled with targeted ads based on your browsing behavior with only scant data protections in place. Providing access to a network of VPN servers costs money, so unless you are paying for the service or opt for one of a handful of freemium services, in-app advertising is how the developers turn a profit,” Simon Migliano, Head of Research at Top10VPN, told Business Insider.
“These apps — and free VPN services in general — typically have very poor privacy policies that fail to minimize the collection of connection metadata, which can result in users being identifiable,” he added.
Fiddle around with your phone settings
You don’t necessarily need specially downloaded tools to keep an eye on who might be keeping track of you.
For Vilain another way to keep an eye on her digital privacy hygiene is simply by rooting around in her phone’s settings. She said that as a self-described “privacy geek” she likes to go into her settings to look at what apps might be quietly tracking her, and whether she can manually switch them off.
“Yesterday I went into my iPhone and I wanted to check which applications were getting my geolocation, because I noticed that when I was using Safari I could see the little arrow taking my geolocation,” she said.
“So I went back and I saw so many apps were still taking my geolocation when I really thought that I already had checked my settings. So I regularly check my settings,” she said.
Vilain said the most important individual settings she looks for are geolocation and settings sharing back app usage for targeted advertising.
This is admittedly a time-consuming way to keep an eye on your privacy, and Vilain said she is looking forward to a new Apple feature due to roll out next year which will explicitly ask users to opt in to various trackers when they install an app.
“I think it’s amazing and it’s a really great advance for privacy,” said Vilain of Apple’s new feature, adding that companies and app developers should be asking for active consent to track users under Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations. “I’m always amazed that companies are not doing it right now because they should be,” she said.
She qualified her praise for Apple, as the new app permissions have yet to roll out and could change. The tech giant already delayed the rollout after it received complaints from developers including Facebook saying it would gut their ad revenue.
The worst offenders aren’t the social media apps, Vilain says, it’s wellness, dating, and e-commerce apps
Vilain said she always tells people they don’t really have any privacy when they use social media. However, she doesn’t think social media poses the biggest problem when it comes to people’s data being surreptitiously funneled away to third-parties.
Vilain thinks the media landscape since the Cambridge Analytica scandal means consumers have become more aware that if a service is free, generally that means they are the product. “I think now when you use Google and Facebook and Instagram you’re like ‘Okay, this is a free service, I know how they are making money,'” she said.
Vilain said there are three kinds of apps which she thinks are particularly bad for passing along user data in untransparent ways: health and wellness apps, dating apps, and shopping apps.
“Running [apps], anything monitoring you with a connected device, meditation, yoga, all the apps we’ve been using like mad during the COVID-19 crisis,” she said.
Health and wellness apps have skyrocketed with the onset of the pandemic. A September report from analytics firm Moengage showed that between Q1 and Q2 of this year fitness app downloads spiked by 46% globally. First-time downloads of mindfulness app Calm boomed by 36% in April.
Dating app usage has also received a boost during the pandemic. Match Group, the conglomerate behind Tinder, Hinge, Match, and OKCupid reported a 15% jump in subscribed members in its Q2 report.
Concerns about the amount of data leakage from these services have been raised before: In January of this year Norwegian researchers found apps including Tinder, Grindr, and OKCupid were passing on user data in ways that could violate privacy law in both the US and Europe.
Unsurprisingly e-commerce has also seen a tremendous uptick, with consumers stuck at home during various lockdown measures. Amazon revealed its sales went up by 37% to $96.1 billion in Q3 of this year, with net profit roughly tripling to $6.33 billion.
Vilain added another area where users might be surprised to learn their data could be handed along for targeted advertising is in encrypted messaging apps.
“You think WhatsApp is secure because you’re sending encrypted messages, right? But in fact, Facebook knows who you’re talking to at any time. What you’ve done before you were sending that message, where you’re going after you’re sending that message,” she said.
Vilain is not ideologically opposed to apps building a business out of users’ data, but for her it’s all about transparency.
“These companies, they know what they are doing. They know they are putting trackers on their applications. And I’m not judging whether it’s good or bad to put a tracker, I’m just saying that their practices are not very transparent,” she said.