Crowdfunded privacy platform eBlocker is launching a cheaper, bare bones version of its plug-and-play service that promises to kibosh ad trackers at the network level.
Due to go on sale later this year for $99, the eBlocker Base is cheaper than the two options currently available—Pro ($219) and Family ($249)—which come with subscription fees after the first year. EBlocker Base preserves the core functions of the platform—IP anonymization and ad blocking—but does away with subscriptions.
While there are plenty of other solutions that promise to block trackers and spoof IPs, one of eBlocker's selling points is that it's very easy to set up; the little white box just needs to occupy a spare Ethernet port on your router, plug it in to the power outlet, and it'll get to work in a matter of minutes, covering every device connected to your router.
You'll know that it's working when you browse the web and see the small orange eBlocker logo occupying the top right of your browser's window. Clicking on this will open up a toolbar, which lets you anonymize your connection via Tor or a VPN of your choice.
From here you can choose to make it appear as if you're accessing the internet from another country, handy if you want to access geo-locked content. As eBlocker is applied to the whole network, you can also route traffic from specific devices, like your smart TV or game console, to certain territories, which saves you from having to manually enter DNS codes if you just wanted to watch Netflix from abroad or access BBC iPlayer from a German hotel room.
You can also make it appear as though you're connected to the internet through different devices, should you want the world to think that your Windows 10 desktop is actually an Android phone.
One reason you might want to do this, according to CEO Christian Bennefeld, is dynamic pricing. This is where prices for things can change depending on the device you're using; it might be that certain bargains are only available to mobile customers, so spoofing your device might reap extra benefits besides privacy.
We got to briefly see this working at eBlocker's booth at IFA, when Bennefeld searched for deals on the web page of a well-known holiday booking agent. When we appeared to be making a booking through a mobile browser, we found ourselves in line for a $35 saving on a Parisian hotel. We're keen to play with this even more to explore other contextual pricing trends and also to see if we can convince merchants that yes, we are actually accessing their sites through Safari on a Windows 10 S machine.
How Does it Work?
Despite this IP obfuscation, what lies at the heart of the eBlocker offering is a promise to fox ad trackers at the network level without slowing down your connection. How does it do that exactly?
Bennefeld declined to go into the specifics; eBlocker's technology is patent pending in Germany and internationally. Broadly speaking, the system identifies requests to forward information (typically which articles customers read, how long they read for and which articles they click on next) to external servers by ad trackers and denies those requests. It's not an ad blocker in the sense that JPEGs and animated banners get automatically stripped out. Any sales executives running programmatic campaigns can breathe (a little) more easily.
"Our focus is to increase the privacy levels of the user, not to harm the publishing industry," Bennefeld stressed. "We block all those services that are actually compromising the privacy of the individual… We only block those ads that are based on data or based on collecting data on the user. We let all those ads pass that are not based on data [collection]."
Users can also whitelist or disable eBlocker for certain websites, so if they're feeling charitable, they can temporarily or permanently disable settings for sites they like.
Whitelists are always user-defined. Bennefeld told PCMag that eBlocker would never let companies pay to be whitelisted, saying that the business model is based on charging customers for the hardware and subscriptions. As such, whitelisting is not included with eBlocker Base. If you want to create your own user-specific list, you'll need eBlocker Pro, and if you want to blacklist any sites unsuitable for younger eyes, then you'll need eBlocker Family.
One thing to note is that the hardware is the same regardless. You could buy eBlocker Base on the cheap and then three months later, sign up for a Pro ($59/year) or Family ($99/year) subscription.
If you cancel or don't renew, you'll still get the basic tracker blocking function, though by subscribing, you get regular updates to keep you one step ahead of any changes tracking companies might roll out to beat eBlocker.
Having co-founded a tracking company of his own—eTracker—Bennefeld knows a thing or two about data collection. He's no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of eTracker, but he retains a 50 percent stake.
In a previous interview with Internet World Business, Bennefeld said it's possible for tracking companies to "collect data cleanly, without personalization and without going into intimate areas such as health or religion," and still turn a profit. Still, eTracker is still blocked by eBlocker; a service is only whitelisted by default if no data is being collected at all, Bennefeld told PCMag.
Currently, when you whitelist a site with eBlocker, you're essentially waving through any and all trackers—Google Analytics, Webtrends, Sharethrough, etc.—that happen to be operating on that page. The ability to block or allow individual trackers will be added in a future update.
Updates in the pipeline include support for Browser Protection (active phishing detection) and eBlocker Mobile, which promises to route mobile traffic from iOS and Android phones through an encrypted tunnel when they're not connected to the home network. We're not sure how Google will react to that, given that it wants to keep tabs on you and your buying habits wherever you are. Both features are due to arrive late September and December, respectively.
During our time with eBlocker, we saw it working on a Windows 7 laptop running a version of Firefox, connected to the internet via typically cruddy conference hall Wi-Fi. While we weren't able to run any speed tests, we noted that page load times weren't significantly different with eBlocker turned on or off. If anything, loading up the homepages of the Sun and Guardian newspapers with eBlocker on was several seconds faster.
It's important to remember that eBlocker is designed to frustrate ad trackers, not protect you against government spooks. Your ISP will still be required to hand over whatever information it has on you as per the Investigatory Powers Act and if you're in the US, your provider will still sell whatever data it can glean.
Despite the anti-phishing tool that's in the pipeline, eBlocker's not a replacement for your security suite either, so you'll still need your firewall. It's already de facto banned in Russia and China, where anonymizing tools like VPNs are illegal.
That said, we're intrigued by the general premise and by the fact that eBlocker will soon guard users against tracking when they're on the move, too. Without being able to do more testing with this, we'll reserve our full judgment, but with thousands of paying customers live in the US, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, we're confident it's not going to go the way of Juicero.