Abine To Protect Online Privacy

This is part 1 of a 2 part article on Abine. Part 2 will cover a Q & A session with the team at Abine.

Rob Shavell form Abine contacted me after reading a Mint.com article I wrote, and wondered if I would be interested in reviewing their new solution that’s currently in beta testing, along with their website and anything else that might be relevant. According to their website, Abine was founded in 2008 and “provides Internet privacy solutions for consumers. Abine’s products and services allow regular people to regain control over their personal information while continuing to browse, interact and shop online.”

General Observations About Abine

My only knowledge of Abine other than a few email exchanges was their website initially. If we assume that trust is in large part a function of competence and likability, then it’s important for Abine to make a crisp, professional impression in order to garner user’s trust. I initially found broken links, confusing navigation, typos, spelling and grammatical errors, and missing information. However, the website has since gone through many updates and improvements, with most of the issues I saw corrected. If you haven’t visited the site in the last month or so, take a look.

Documentation refers to the software somewhat inconsistently. In some places it is referred to as a browser plug-in. In other places, a suite, and yet others a collection of privacy apps and spam protection. Before installing,I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get.

What Can Abine Do For You?

Abine installed as a Firefox plug-in. So far I’ve tried it on both Mac and Windows. With the latest release there is now an IE version available as well. Essentially it allows you to do the following

  • Turn on and off various privacy settings
  • Manage and generate passwords
  • Manage credit cards
  • Manage and shield personal information tied to the various privacy applications
  • Create and manage “shield” email accounts and alternate identities
  • Integrate additional purchased features and third-party apps
  • Submit the managed information to websites automatically
  • See what cookies sites are setting and block them
  • See a gauge of how “safe” Abine thinks the website is from a privacy perspective
  • Opt out of ad networks
  • Sign up for Hushmail serivces
  • Sign up for web proxy services

Im my opinion, Abine’s possibly unsung strength is its ability to help support and enforce best practices with regard to security, browsing, and privacy. It puts several useful solutions in one place and helps you to use them. See below for more comments on this.

It’s not entirely clear how Abine determines how “safe” a site is from a privacy perspective. When tested on various sites, it reported the following risk levels:

I didn’t turn up any high risk sites, but I didn’t really want to look to hard for those either. Ironically, when I first pointed Abine at its own website during testing, Abine did not report the website as safe. I’ve noticed with the latest update however that it is now registering at the lowest risk level.

As a good example, when testing the privacy info feature I went to TMZ. This was the first time I’d ever been to the site. According to Abine, TMZ’s home page tried to put 150 cookies and 16 ad networks on my system.

The Abine website provides some educational information regarding how you can be tracked online. The recommendations are sound, however none of them currently are accomplished using the application directly:

  • Block third-party cookies
  • Prevent unwanted JavaScript from loading
  • Don’t keep browser history
  • Know that your IP address can be tracked and correlated with other logging to determine where you go on the internet.

There were some other features of the Abine interface I found helpful. The privacy popup window that displays when you first visit a site shows usueful information, including a like to any recent data breaches associated with the site.

Up For Debate

The site makes some statements that I think need clarification or refinement.

“Safer and easier because you own everything.” I don’t understand that statement. I own my information now, and don’t see how then application would change that. It does seem to make it easier to manage information having it in one place, but I don’t see how I am safer when using Abine itself. Also, it’s not an objective statement to equate privacy with safety. In some situations this could be true, but not always.

Abine implies it can help prevent identity theft. It also draws a correlation between increased privacy and less spam. Remember, you’re still providing information but in a controlled manner. The info is still released once you submit it, and whether it’s your real account or a shielded one, you can still end up receiving spam on that email address. If you submit your email to a site that would eventually end up in some type of spam, whether or not you submit that info from Abine isn’t relevant. In my opinion what is beneficial is how you use the tool, not just the tool itself. If you’re using the same passwords everywhere, and especially if they’re weak, keeping them in a safe place doesn’t help.

Problems and Weakness

Unprotected by Default

The data file where information is stored is encrypted with 256 bit AES. In order to protect your information though you need to remember to enable a master password in the security preferences. If you don’t do this, password, credit card data etc. you enter into Abine will not be protected on the desktop. Once a someone opens your browser, they would have access to your information and your profiles.

Good Potential but Chaotic Complicated Interface

Mentioned above, one of the benefits of Abine is that it provides a lot of tools to help manage your privacy. The interface in my opinion however has some major flaws with usability and branding

  • Inconsistent and overly complicated interface
  • Seeming unnecessary mechanics to turn on and enable/disable features
  • Visual presentation, GUI, and branding inconsistent with Abine’s website
  • Hard to determine who the target audience is

The two major challenges I see for Abine right now are a) determining their target audience and designing for them, and b) refining the interface to reinforce the ability to simply, safely, and quickly protect your privacy online.

Profile Not Easily Portable

One of the things that makes apps like Evernote, Xmarks, and DropBox so useful for me is their ubiquity and their ability to sync across browsers, platforms, and devices. Xmarks for example allows me to maintain one set of bookmark information and sync it securely across Firefox, Chrome, and IE and on multiple OSs. If a user had the ability to do that with Abine, and potentially use it via a browser when using a potentially unsafe computer, it would be that much better. Maybe this would make a great upgrade or paid feature of the application.

Recommendations

Download the latest beta version of Abine and give it a try. Even if you don’t want to enter credit card information and passwords, the cookie, ad blocking, and form entry functions are helpful. And give Abine feedback. They seem genuinely interested in what people have to say and making their product as good as possible.

For Abine, IMHO here are some ideas that could help optimize the solution for users

  • Lead with benefits to users rather than the tool and what it does, and educate users
  • Define your audience and design your tool and content for them
  • Simplify

Simplify would be the biggest recommendation overall. If the target demographic ends up being the average user, then Abine needs to be a simple tool that “just works.” Make it powerful enough so that advanced users can do as much as they want while at the same time making the interface intuitive enough that it doesn’t deter users from taking advantage of the protection that Abine can help maintain.

Follow Jason on Twitter @jason_owens

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