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Privly: A New Standard for Online Privacy

Online privacy has always been a big deal, and as people continue to share more and more information online, it’s only going to become more important in the coming years. And now that we’ve seen governments brought to their knees due in no small part to social media like Twitter, and other governments — including the American government — going to greater lengths to track what people do online, keeping your online data private is going to become more pressing — and more difficult, if not dangerous.

Enter Privly, “a proof-of-concept for a new standard of private sharing.” A browser extension being developed for Firefox and Chrome by a group of Oregon State computer scientists, Privly takes anything you send online — e-mail, tweets, Facebook posts — and encrypts and protects that data so that only those you trust can see it. Or, as they describe it:

Privly makes it impossible for others to control your data. By simply installing our browser extension, you are able to keep your content, well, your content. For those who don’t have the extension installed, they see a simple link that sends them to your post, photo, video, etc. For those who do have the extension installed, they are able to see your post on the page as it was intended. That’s because the extension pulls the data from the other side of the link into your Facebook page, Twitter feed, etc, seamlessly, without supplying that data to data miners. Meaning your content stays, your content.

Alexis Madrigal has some additional analysis of Privly, which he describes as “a working argument for a more private, less permanent Internet.”

What’s intriguing about all this is that it, as McGregor puts it, violates many assumptions we have about the way the web works. When we post to a site, we are used to that site controlling whatever it is that we’ve sent to them. That seemed like the tradeoff you had to make in exchange for a service like Facebook. But McGregor and his team argue that it’s simply not necessary to give away that level of control. And they are building the technology to prove it.

The fact that the content is user-controlled, however, has some fascinating repercussions. Email that sits in the cloud — like Gmail — could be edited by the sender even after its been received. Tweets could change on a tweeter’s whim. The semi-permanence and dependability of the social web could break down. Giving users power doesn’t only affect the corporate services they use, but other users of those networks as well.

Privly’s developers have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund further development.

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