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Google just banned the privacy app Disconnect from the Play Store, again. Disconnect can shield users against invisible tracking tools, while increasing consumer awareness on surreptitious data-collection methods. It also functions to some extent as an anti-malware tool.

The Tor Browser’s developers thought enough of Disconnect to make it their default search engine. It’s as secure and private as anyone can expect. And it explains why they got banned. Google – or any large data companies – commoditize search data by analyzing, repacking, and then selling targeted ads to interested parties. Encryption and other privacy and security tools damage this revenue stream.

Why We Should All Be Concerned

The main question extending from Disconnect’s banning: How can users protect themselves against secret data sharing?

The banning also brings up important questions on security and the ethical treatment of customer data. Given the broader picture of illegal government surveillance Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More , and Google’s attempts to drive its competition out of business, ­­­­can we trust Google?

Google’s Reason for the Banning

After the first banning in 2014, Disconnect posted in its blog Google’s statement: No app can interfere with the function of another app. Disconnect then redesigned the Android version of its service, to meet the requirement. At present, the Android version only informs users as to which services track them online. Even so, Google banned them again, this time without issuing a statement.

So why would Google ban an app which doesn’t violate the terms of the Play Store agreement?

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How Does Disconnect Threaten Google?

Disconnect shields users from multiple forms of invisible tracking methods. In its free version of the Android app, its efforts center on three fronts.

First, it allows users to search the web using their favorite search engine, but without turning over user data to search-engine giants. Second, it aids in eliminating websites from tracking user website history.

Unlike most ad-blockers, it does not require root access (what’s root access?), and–rather than blocking ads—Disconnect identifies tracking methods that offer potential routes for malware delivery. It also can block potentially dangerous tracking elements. It by no means blocks advertisements. Disconnect specifically designed the Android version of their app to skirt around the restrictions of the Play Store, which specifically bans ad-blocking apps, such as Ad-Away and Ad-Block Plus. Third, the app informs users on how their information is used by corporations.

The paid version throws in a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) How To Set Up A VPN (And Why It's A Good Idea To Use One) How To Set Up A VPN (And Why It's A Good Idea To Use One) Should you be using a VPN? It's quite likely that the answer is yes. Read More service, which anonymizes users’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses What Is A Static IP Address, How Do I Get One & Its Advantages / Disadvantages What Is A Static IP Address, How Do I Get One & Its Advantages / Disadvantages Read More . VPN works by encrypting (what is encryption? How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More ) user traffic and routing it through a proxy tunnel. This, in effect, allows users to hide unique identifying information from potentially unwanted surveillance. However, whether or not Disconnect’s service stands up to the WebRTC bug remains unknown. Those interested in analyzing their browser’s security can check the Browserleaks site for results. To my knowledge, the WebRTC bug affects the Chrome – but not Firefox – browser.

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Google’s failure to supply Disconnect with a rationale means the app’s creators can’t redesign their software. In effect, there’s no way to get Disconnect published in the Play Store, reducing its potential userbase. Disconnect’s story isn’t an outlier, either. A growing chorus of developer voices joined in protesting Google’s oftentimes opaque decision-making process. For example, Grooveshark’s banning seemed to come under nebulous condition – although it briefly returned before Grooveshark itself succumbed to legal blows. The Amazon Store’s banning stems from its direct competition to the Play Store. The list goes on, and on. However, with Disconnect the developers followed Google’s rules—and it got banned anyway. The takeaway from the removal: Apps threatening Google’s revenue stream won’t inhabit the Play Store for long.

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Installing Disconnect

Because Disconnect hails from outside the Play Store, users must first enable third party apps in Android. To enable a third party app, go to Settings > Security and check Unknown Sources. On your phone, download Disconnect from disconnect.me. You will receive a prompt on where you want to download the file. Most of the time it goes to the Download directory in Android, which is located on either your SD card or in internal memory.

android unknown sources

You will then need a file explorer (such as Solid Explorer) to locate the file in your Downloads directory. Use the file explorer to select the file. Then choose to open it with the Package Installer, if prompted.

Using the Free Version of Disconnect

On Android systems, the free version of Disconnect offers two main functions: Shielded searches, and information on surreptitious tracking elements.

Shielded Searches and Malware Protection

Disconnect’s free version performs web searches using any major search engine. Disconnect claims to encrypt your searches – even they don’t know what you’ve searched for. Also as a sign of its pedigree, Disconnect just got transplanted into the Tor Project, which is the premiere privacy tool on today’s Internet–and here’s how to use Tor How the Tor Project Can Help You Protect Your Own Online Privacy How the Tor Project Can Help You Protect Your Own Online Privacy Privacy has been a constant issue with virtually all major sites that you visit today, especially those that handle personal information on a regular basis. However, while most security efforts are currently directed towards the... Read More .

To use it, just open the app and type in any search term.

encrypted searches with disconnect

Scan Website for Nonsecure, Secret Tracking Elements

To scan a website for nonsecure elements, start the app and then select Identify Threats from the bottom of the screen. You can do the same scans from within the Disconnect browser.

Next, type in the name of a website that you’d like to scan for nonsecure elements. After completing the scan, Disconnect presents a graphical depiction – like spokes on a wheel – of the various information sharing sites which get unencrypted access to your data. Below you’ll see screenshots of an offender with more nonsecure tracking elements than any pornography or gambling website.

newyorktimes invisible trackers disconnect

Other Platforms

Disconnect also makes itself available on Chrome (although it hasn’t been banned there) and iOS. You can download them here:

chromewebstore

Why We Need More Privacy Apps

In 2015, Marcus Robertson, faced 20-years of imprisonment on charges of supporting terrorism. Prosecutors alleged that 20 books, of his more than 10,000 deep eBook collection, contained “terrorist” passages. Apps like Disconnect play a key role in molding a future in which reading habits don’t form the basis for imprisonment or prosecution. In the larger scheme of illegal domestic surveillance, and the NSA’s impressive technology Tomorrow's Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You - Soon Tomorrow's Surveillance: Four Technologies The NSA Will Use to Spy on You - Soon Surveillance is always on the cutting edge of technology. Here are four technologies that will be used to violate your privacy over the next few years. Read More , everyone should consider using encryption and proxy technology–and here’s how to protect against illegal spying How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More .

While Google can block privacy apps, it cannot destroy them. Because of Android’s flexibility as an operating system, privacy-seeking users can simply download and install the applications direct from the developer’s website.

Does anyone else have a privacy app suggestion? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Jack
    May 14, 2016 at 11:39 am

    I have been using disconnect search for a long time. It really pisses me off that Google is such a profit monger that it literally denies apps because the provide for the privacy of their customers. They still have large revenue streams and there are still millions of people that don't care if google tracks them and have no interest in Disconnect. It exemplifies google's disregard of the needs of it's users. Typical large, successful corporation.

    • Kannon Yamada
      May 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      There have been attempts to create open source operating systems based on Android. For example, Copperhead OS is fully open source and comes with the F-Droid app store: https://copperhead.co/android/

      It's a really impressive system and hopefully it lights a fire under Google's pants.

  2. József Bertus
    July 14, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Though Disconnect may be back (or parts of it?) onto Play Store, your article at least drew attention over this product.

    Now... I see some directions you should think about:

    1. You focused on Google vs Disconnect, but since a lot of people don't know Disconnect, a more detailed review of this product could have been nice. I will have to research, for example, how Disconnect interacts with existing Antivirus/AntiMalware/Firewall apps (on phone and on PC) and I'll have to find out if Disconnect is better than Ghostery or not.

    2. Please add to Make Use Of more reviews for (Android) applications you find useful. I will surely read them.

    Thanks

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 14, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for the wonderful article idea. I should have included a match-up between Disconnect and Ghostery (but wasn't aware of Ghostery).

      Ghostery is similar to Disconnect, but doesn't seem to offer the same awareness of hidden trackers that Disconnect offers users.

  3. Jeremy Holton
    July 14, 2015 at 7:03 am

    The problem is that Google can only afford to support the free services it provides through advertising. If everybody blocked ads there would be no Google, or Facebook etc. In my view if you use free services supported by advertising you should not block the adverts.

    • Michael Ackerman
      July 22, 2015 at 9:13 pm

      Read the article again. It says it does not block Ads.

  4. Terry Rhea
    July 10, 2015 at 11:37 am

    It would be really helpful to see a date and time the articles were published on this site. Unless I'm completely blind I've scanned this page like 4 times now and don't see a date and time of when this article was written.

    • Alex Cendejas
      July 10, 2015 at 3:40 pm

      You're completely blind. Just below the title, there's a small banner on top of the first picture that clearly says:

      "Written by Kannon Yamada
      July 9, 2015"

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 10, 2015 at 10:22 pm

      Sorry about that Terry. At the time this article was submitted, Disconnect was not available in the Play Store. It appears to have reentered the Store. We'll see whether or not it remains there.

  5. Ron
    July 10, 2015 at 10:53 am

    * Not available at Google Play Store: Disconnect Malvertising

    * Available at Google Play Store: Disconnect Secure Wireless and Disconnect Search

  6. Bailey Thorson
    July 10, 2015 at 5:32 am

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=me.disconnect.search&hl=en

    Is this the app we're talking about? It looks to me as if it's still available on the play store.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 14, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      They just started offering it again.

  7. Guy DÉRIDET
    July 10, 2015 at 3:15 am

    Disconnect is again available on Google Play !

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 10, 2015 at 10:20 pm

      This must have happened in the last few days. Hopefully they don't get removed again.

  8. Christopher HasARightToPrivacy
    July 9, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I wonder if we will ever come to the most logical consensus that a constitutional amendment that grants the right to personal privacy is needed.

    • Kelsey Tidwell
      July 13, 2015 at 11:37 pm

      As if this presidency recognizes the United States Constitution as legally binding. Would have been a good thought though in more rational times.

      • Christopher HasARightToPrivacy
        July 15, 2015 at 1:05 am

        You don't really think that adopting constitutional amendments rests solely in the hands of the president do you?

        • Kelsey Tidwell
          July 15, 2015 at 1:39 am

          Of course not...but as the leader of this country, he should exemplify the following of the letter of the Constitution. The wrong thing to do is to say that the Constitution is outdated and out of touch and what it says is not what the founding fathers really meant just because it doesn't jive with certain policies. :)

  9. Read and Share
    July 9, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Not that I needed any more reasons to move steadily away from Google products, but this is one more.

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