Digital advertising is a $365 billion industry - and Apple has recently made an enemy out of most of it. Last week, the company released “App Tracking Transparency,” an update to iOS that allows users to control how third parties can use their data -- or whether they can use that data at all. “Privacy is a fundamental human right,” reads the company’s Privacy page. “At Apple, it’s also one of our core values.”
The move also represents a fundamental affront to the Internet’s status quo. Advertising has long been the lifeblood of the digital economy, and its growth over the past two decades has come with a rapid increase in the amount of data the likes of Google and Facebook collect on their users -- often without their consent. Tools like App Tracking Transparency, combined with the sharp rise in ad blocking over the past few years, promise to make it a lot harder for advertisers to collect the data they need to target consumers on the web.
A recent report from Flurry, a mobile app analytics firm owned by Verizon Media, suggests that somewhere between 11 to 13% of worldwide users are opting into allowing app tracking on iOS with the latest update. That figure sits at between 2 and 5% in the United States. Whatever the geography, a significant data pipeline to developers and advertisers has just disappeared.
Apple isn’t alone in changing the landscape of app tracking and data management. The company’s move is part of a larger shift in tech toward products with privacy at their core. Here are a few of the most interesting and important startups building in the space.
Brave - A privacy-focused web browser with a twist
Cash raised: $42M
Key stat: 25 million active users
Web browsers on desktops have been on the front lines in the battle against digital advertising since the beginning. Ad blocking extensions have been an almost-effortless and constantly evolving part of a consumer’s toolkit to consume the internet. However, ad-based revenue is an important part of the puzzle for businesses looking to grow online, and ad-blocking has its own detractors.
Enter Brave, a privacy-first web browser founded by Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. Brave promises to not just squash online surveillance by blocking ad tracking, but also improve content loading speed and improve device battery life.
While many of those features could be accomplished with an ad blocker, Brave has a win-win twist: with Brave Rewards, users can enable ads and get paid for their attention. Brave allows users to track how much time they spend on the sites they visit and then donate Basic Attention Tokens (the company’s crypto asset) to those content creators in one of two ways: enable privacy-respecting ads, giving the user BAT to transfer to the corresponding creators, or fund your wallet directly to then send BAT to those you appreciate.
Mine - A smart assistant for data ownership
Cash raised: $12.5M since 2019
Key stat: Mine says it’s saved 15K users from data breaches
When someone creates a new Spotify account, do they own their data or does Spotify? For Mine, which helps users manage their digital data footprint, the answer is unequivocally the former. With the company’s “smart data assistant,” users can uncover which companies are holding their data and manage how it’s used. Mine also streamlines the data removal request process, which it claims will reduce users’ exposure to data breaches.
Venturing beyond consumer use cases, Mine is also making a play for the enterprise by making it easier for companies to manage all of the data removal requests that Mine’s tool will undoubtedly create for them.
Jumbo - A data privacy assistant for social platforms
Cash raised: $11.6 million since 2019
Key stat: 5,000 paid customers as of August 2020
User-facing data controls have always been a fraught issue. While Google, Facebook, and Twitter have all given users the ability to manage their privacy settings, the tools aren’t always well-broadcasted, easy to access, or easy to use. They’re also liable to reset themselves.
Jumbo, an iOS app created by Sunrise developer Pierre Valade, was created to streamline the process of controlling your data across products. Users are given a single place to manage their privacy settings across Amazon Alexa, Twitter, Facebook, and Google. These settings include automatic tweet deletion, Facebook post visibility, and Alexa voice recording storage.
Privacy.com - A virtual credit platform for one-time payments
Cash raised: $12.4M since 2016
Key stat: 5M+ virtual card numbers issued
When it comes to protecting users’ credit card data from hackers, companies haven't had the best track record in recent years. Data breaches are not only increasing in number, but they’re also increasing in scope.
What's the best way to prevent companies from exposing your credit card info to hackers? By not giving them that information in the first place. Enter Privacy.com, which allows users to use single-use credit card numbers (effectively virtual burner cards) when transacting online. This approach not only keeps credit card information safe from hackers, but also protects users against auto-renewing subscriptions through spend limits and easy card closures.
Airside - Identity verification for travel and beyond
Cash raised: $21M
Key stats: 9M+ members
It may be hard to remember this in 2021, but once upon a time, people used to travel - and it was often a harried experience. One of the worst parts: the customs entry process, which is notorious for being the worst way to end an international flight.
This was the problem that Airside set out to solve with its Mobile Passport app, which securely stores traveler’s identity information to expedite the customs process. This makes it easy to share verified information, quickly, and track + control how your information is being used. On the business side, Airside’s tech creates a more distributed identity verification database, reducing security risks for airports and cruise ports, which are major targets for hackers.
Airside, however, is going beyond travel: the company has positioned itself as a “digital identity management company” and has also expanded into healthcare, seeing the opportunity for its product to support COVID-19 test and vaccine passports.
DuckDuckGo - A privacy-first Google alternative
Cash raised: $13M raised since 2008
Key stats: 100 million daily searches
No list about privacy-focused products would be complete without the privacy-focused search engine, DuckDuckGo. While the company has been around for over a decade, its growth has accelerated in recent years. The company has benefitted from both growing consumer dissatisfaction with Google and recent EU antitrust rules that place it among the handful of choices Android users can select from when setting up new devices.
Yubico - Two-factor hardware for consumers & the enterprise
Cash raised: $55M since 2007
Like DuckDuckGo, Yubico is part of the privacy-first old guard: The company launched its physical two-factor authentication key back in 2007. What’s changed, however, is the company’s scope. It’s made a bigger play for enterprise buyers in recent years, most recently with its YubiEnterprise Services, which allows big firms to purchase and implement YubiKeys at scale within their organizations. Yubico has also pushed into biometrics. One of its latest devices, the YubiKey 5 Series, features an integrated fingerprint scanner.