Disconnect App Adds Privacy with Tracker-Blocking, VPN

How much do the websites you visit know about you? And who else is scooping up that information? Starting today (Nov. 13), security company Disconnect is launching a multi-platform privacy app, also called Disconnect that lets users see who and what is tracking them — and block the majority of those trackers.

The new Disconnect software is also a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts your Internet traffic and reroutes it through Disconnect's servers to hide your IP address. It also blocks many online trackers and ads, to increase your online privacy and reduce your risk of encountering malvertising. Out for PC, Mac, Android and iOS, Disconnect costs $5 per month for three devices, or $50 per year. A free version with limited features and no VPN is also available.

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Most of the new Disconnect app's features had already been available as stand-alone products from the Disconnect company, but they were for specific platforms. The previous VPN app, called Disconnect Mobile, was only available for Android, for example (which as a standalone app costs $3 per month or $30 per year).

The big news here is that Disconnect's VPN is now available for iOS, PC and Mac. But for around the same cost as other VPNs, Disconnect offers some extra privacy-oriented features, like showing you what services are tracking you or connecting to your computer at any given moment. The Disconnect app can also block many of those trackers, which helps increase your online privacy. This works on the network level, regardless of which browser you use, and can even stop some in-app ads from displaying on your devices.

The desktop versions also includes links to three Disconnect browser extensions: Private Browsing, Private Search and Privacy Icons. All three of these were already free on the company's website, Disconnect.me. Private Browsing blocked trackers on a browser level; Private Search was a means of routing all search queries through Disconnect's servers to mask your own IP address.

Privacy Icons (available on Chrome and Firefox only) is an extension that uses simple, easy-to-recognize icons to show you how the websites you visit in that browser collect and use your data.

Disconnect's VPN also brings back an anti-sidejacking functionality that was included in its Private Browsing extension until a year ago. Sidejacking is when online attackers snoop on a user's network traffic and steals session cookies from the traffic. With this data, the attacker can then get victims' passwords to the service from which the session cookie originated. 

The new Disconnect app will also soon come pre-installed on the Blackphone, the privacy-oriented smartphone from SGP Technologies.

Disconnect from Ads?

The Android version of Disconnect will not be available on the Google Play Store; users can only download the Android version from the company website and sideload it onto an Android device. According to Casey Oppenheim, Disconnect's co-founder and CEO, that's because Google didn't like the way Disconnect's anti-tracking functionality blocks online ads.

But despite the fact that Disconnect does block a wide swath of ads in order to protect users from malvertising, Oppenheim says that Disconnect is not a full ad blocker. For one, Disconnect does not block first-party ads — so if you're on a company's website, ads from that company will still display.

For another, says Oppenheim, "I have serious concerns about a future where everyone's running an ad blocker. There are so many incredible services that run on ad revenue, but in my opinion the way advertising operates right now is not in the consumer's interest."

Oppenheim told Tom's Guide that Disconnect is currently in talks with several ad networks that Disconnect deems secure against malvertising. In a coming update, these ad networks will be whitelisted on the Disconnect app, meaning Disconnect users will see ads from ad networks that pass Disconnect's standards.

Currently, Disconnect does not let users customize their own tracking and blocking preferences. Whether or not certain trackers or ads appear on your computer is dependent entirely on whether Disconnect has blocked them or not. However, Oppenheim said the company may consider letting users customize their block settings in a future update.

Disconnect is compatible with Windows 7 and above (though the company may consider adding Vista and XP support, if customers request it); Mac 10.7 and above, iOS 7 and above, and Android 4.0 and above. A Linux version is also coming soon. The free version just includes the tracking visualization.

Email jscharr@tomsguide.com or follow her @JillScharr and Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, onFacebook and on Google+.

Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.