Just browsing the Internet today makes you susceptible to invisible tracking software, malware, identity theft, and data breaches that put your sensitive private information at risk. What is more, thousands of companies use these invisible trackers to collect bits of your personal information and browsing habits to piece together profiles of you. These get bought and sold, hijacked, modified and updated without any transparency on your part. This means you have no control over what goes into these profiles, nor who has access to them.
I will start my review by looking at Disconnect the company. Founded in 2011, Disconnect is a benefit corporation (colloquially, B corporation). This is a new corporate form whereby for-profit entities want to consider society and the environment in addition to profit. Specifically, they think of themselves as a for-profit company as well as a consumer advocacy organization. It was formed to tackle the societal problem of personal internet privacy, security, and information transparency. Put simply, Disconnect believes you should be able to control all information that is being collected about you, as well as, who has access to it while anonymously browsing the internet. Integrated into and central to this overall internet privacy prototype is a VPN service.
Pricing and Special Offers
First of all, what is Disconnect? Disconnect is a privacy and security software suite that is available for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows which has been integrated into a VPN service. The suite is designed to provide consumers privacy, security, and more control over how their personal information is shared with ISPs and other companies while browsing the internet.
Disconnect offers the search and browse part of their software for free or “pay what you want”. This free install includes:
- Visual tracking
- The ability to block sites (for desktop only with browser extension)
- Private Search
Having these features will probably make your browser run faster because certain adware and other trackers will be blocked. It will also allow you to search without the analytics tracking your results. However, I think this will just give you a false sense of security while browsing without the extra protection that their premium plan offers. This is evidenced by a review of things the free software can not do:
- Block malware & tracking (Desktop and mobile)
- Stop hackers & identity theft
- Defeat Internet censorship
- Help you to understand site privacy policies
The premium VPN and software will afford you all of these protections and not just the window dressing. I will discuss all of these features a little later in the review.
Disconnect’s Other Products
Before we get into Disconnect’s flagship product, we will first review the other products they offer. These separate products provide the building blocks of their premium software + VPN service. They consists of six components.
- Disconnect Malvertising
- App for iOS,
- Requires iOS 8.3 or later
- Optimized for iPhone 5
- Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.
- App for Android
- Android 4.0 and higher
- Does not automatically update
- Reduces the risk of identity theft by blocking malicious tracking programs
- Blocks malvertising threats disguised as legitimate ads
- Automatically protects from thousands of suspected malware sites
- App for iOS,
- Disconnect Secure Wireless for Andriod 4.0 and later
- A new, smarter VPN that stops wireless eavesdropping over Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G to prevent hacking
- Stops the biggest mobile trackers from collecting your info
- Automatically protects from thousands of malvertising threats
- Disconnect Desktop (browser add-on)
- Available as a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera (No IE extension)
- Pay whatever you want
- Disconnect lets you visualize & block the invisible websites that track you without your knowledge
- Blocks 2,000+ tracking sites
- Load pages up to 27% faster with up to 17% less bandwidth
- Disconnect Search
- Pay whatever you want
- Search privately using your favorite search engine or the address bar
- Available as a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox only
- Disconnect anonymizes your searches as it does not save any search or identifying information
- Search queries are routed through Disconnect’s servers, which makes the queries look like they’re coming from Disconnect instead of your computer.
- Search engines are prevented from passing keywords to the sites you visit from search results pages.
- All queries are encrypted, which prevents your ISP and eavesdroppers into your network from seeing them
- Disconnect doesn’t log any keywords, personal information, or IP addresses.
- Privacy Icons
- Pay whatever you want
- Available as a browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox and Opera
- See how websites collect and use your data
- Easy-to-understand icons for thousands of sites
- Disconnect Kids
- Prevents tracking on your iOS device
- Protects children from unwanted tracking by actively blocking requests for their personal data
- Filters the 20 biggest mobile trackers
- Teaches about online tracking + targeting
- Includes fun and unique educational tools for children (and parents) to learn about online privacy
It is these products that have developed into the current privacy suite that Disconnect now offers as their premium service.
Disconnect VPN Server Locations
Disconnect has very little information on its website regarding the size of its VPN network other than how they allow their members to use it. They do show one device illustration of their service which allows you to choose between US, Europe, Asia, and Germany as locations.
Privacy and Security
We don’t collect any of your personal info, including your IP address, other than information you voluntarily provide.
We don’t sell your personal info to advertisers or other third parties.
We share your personal info only when legally required, or when reasonably necessary to prevent harm in an emergency situation. Our browser extensions and mobile apps don’t collect any of your Personal Info.
We retain your personal info, excluding info you make public, for no more than 30 days after you request deletion.
Unlike most websites, our site doesn’t collect your IP address. And we definitely don’t collect your geo-location.
Disconnect uses OpenVPN and IKEv2 (IPsec) for its VPN connection. Data transmission on Windows, Mac OS X, and Android devices is encrypted using OpenVPN with a 256-bit AES cipher . The iPhone and other iOS devices are connected through IKEv2 (IPsec) with a 256-bit AES cipher. This makes their VPN fast, secure, and allows it to run on multiple platforms.
Now, let us review the premium Disconnect service. They offer custom software for Windows (7+), Mac OS X (10.7+), Android (4.0+) and iOS (7.0+).
Disconnect for Windows
Disconnect has a custom client for Windows that will let you easily connect to a location of one of their VPN servers. You can download the Windows client from their website. When you first launch the Windows client it will show a series of welcome screens as shown below.
The first thing you will notice is that it mentions additional tools to install. The Firefox and Chrome browsers will automatically prompt you to the browser extensions when you restart them. Those who use Safari and Opera will have to manually install the browser extensions and none exist for IE users. These extensions work with Disconnect Desktop to allow you to search, view information about trackers, and block trackers from within your browser.
The second opening screen informs you what the free version of the software is capable of doing and and what its limitation are. The last screen is an upsell for the premium protection and explains what you get if you upgrade to the paid service. The most important part of the upgrade is that you actually get a VPN service to encrypt all of your internet traffic. Additionally you can use the service on three simultaneous devices and all of your browser and app activity are secured.
Disconnect protects your privacy in six ways. First, it lets you see all of the invisible tracking and unsecured connections on the websites you visit and the apps you use. Second, it lets you search privately and securely using your favorite search engine, including Google, Bing, Yahoo Blekko, and DuckDuckGo. Third, it provides you access to their VPN service which routes all of your traffic through an encrypted tunnel to prevent wireless eavesdropping, secure your connections, and protect your sensitive personal information. Fourth, it defeats Internet censorship and allows you to anonymously access content freely without revealing your true location and IP address by routing traffic through your chosen VPN location. Fifth, it automatically blocks 5000+ malicious trackers, sources of malware, and identity theft threats. Sixth, it lets you easily understand – at just a glance – the privacy policies of 1000s of sites, plus other details about how your data is collected and used. Let us take a look at each of these features for their Windows client.
Disconnect Desktop App
First lets examine the Disconnect Desktop feature which allows you to examine invisible tracking and unsecured connections. First, we will look at this in the desktop app shown below.
The first thing I would like to point out is the visual depiction of the website trackers of the current URL (http://www.dictionary.com) shown in the center screen of the above figure. At a glance, you can tell that it has a large number of hidden trackers and that the majority of them are unsecured. Secured ones are shown with a solid line connector and unsecured ones are shown with a dotted-line connector. This is further emphasized by the small circles at the bottom of the screen which show the total number of website trackers on the left and the total number of unsecured ones on the right. Clicking on either of these will open a screen similar to those shown on the left and right of the center one.
These screens give a detailed listing of the trackers and how they can potentially be damaging to you. Those shown in red are unsecured and those that are not red are secured trackers. The one on the left highlights an unsecured tracker which not only collects information about you but also may display ads which could contain malware. The one on the right highlights an unsecured tracker which collects your personal information to create a browsing profile which could be linked to your real name. Notice that Google and Twitter in this case are secured trackers. This is not always the case with either.
You can also click directly on one of the small circles in the visual representation to get info on that tracker as shown below.
A link to each tracker is included with each description of its potential damage so you can go to their site and check out their policies yourself.
Disconnect Desktop Browser Extensions
Similarly to the Window’s desktop app, the browser extensions will let you examine the visited URL and see hidden trackers but you can also choose to block them as well. The two illustrations below show how the extensions work. The first shows the same unblocked site http://www.dictionary.com. The Disconnect browser extension is shown in the upper right of the screen with all blocking turned off (greyed out). The extension clearly depicts 99+ tracker requests from the single site as shown on the D icon in the browser menu. This is not only potentially unsafe but also slows down your browser.
Now, let us look at the case where Disconnect is set to block most requests. This is shown below.
Notice all of the icons are green which means that the content is blocked. As you can see when comparing the two screenshots, many of the ads and other trackers are missing from the URL. In addition to the increased security, an extra benefit is that the page loads quicker than before. The software allows you to individually remove social requests from Facebook, Google and Twitter. It divides the other tracker requests into advertising, analytics, social, and content. Each of these categories can be toggled between blocked and unblocked by clicking on its icon. Additionally, each can be expanded and individual tracker requests can be blocked by checking the box in front of it. You can also choose to whitelist a site and turn the counter on/off with a single click. Finally, it shows you the amount of time saved loading the page, the bandwidth saved, and the secured requests as bar graphs and in percentages.
The second feature of the software is to let you securely search. It does this by encrypting the search request and creating a specialized VPN to its servers to handle the request. This prevents search engines from being able to save your search pattern and connect it back to you. Thus it anonymizes your search. Since it encrypts the request, it also keeps the site that you click on in the search from seeing your search terms. Finally, it stops your ISP from being able to track your browser searches by conducting them through a secure VPN. This is illustrated below for the desktop app. First enter the search query at 1.
A partial result of the private search for the search term vpn is shown below.
This screen allows you to
- Change your search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Blekko, and DuckDuckGo)
- Select your region
- Have protected tools
- Use search tools (lets you choose a time frame for search or choose exact match)
You can also click on the Green D to the left of the search engine to select to run the query directly from Disconnect servers which brings up the following query screen.
As you can see above, Disconnect Search allows you to search privately using your favorite search engine.
Disconnect Search Browser Extensions
The Disconnect Search Browser extension can also be used to do an anonymous search directly from the browser. It is an add-on and must be loaded separately. It is shown below.
The browser extensions will also allow you to choose your own search engine. Additionally, you can set it to search privately directly through the address bar or from the search engine website. You can also choose to open the search in a private window.
Disconnect VPN Service
The third feature of the Disconnect privacy solution and probably the most important part is the VPN service that they offer which is only included in their paid premium service. With it they encrypt all your internet and app traffic and send it through a secure tunnel to the Disconnect VPN server of your choice. This ensures that your personal information is anonymous, secure, and protected from wi-fi eavesdropping and other possible security threats. The settings screen on the app allows you some control over this connection. From it you can choose the search engine location, whether or not you want to show privacy icons for sites, language used, the VPN server location that you connect to, and if you want to connect using TCP or UDP. The figure below shows the desktop app set for the USA location.
The locations that you can choose to connect to a VPN include USA, Europe, Asia, and Germany. Because Disconnect makes it possible to securely connect to any of their VPN servers in multiple regions, it allows you to defeat Internet censorship and anonymously access content freely without revealing your true location. Your IP is also protected since all traffic is encrypted and appears to come from your chosen VPN location. Also since all of your traffic is going through their servers, they automatically protect you from over 5000 identified malicious trackers, sources of malware, and identity theft threats. As you can see, the addition of a VPN has really helped them solidify their prototype privacy solution.
Disconnect Privacy Icons
- Expected Use – They use your data in ways you would not reasonably expect for their service but you can opt out of it.
- Data Retention – They have no data retention policy.
- Children Privacy – This website has not received TRUSTe’s Children’s Privacy Certification.
- Do Not Track – This website does not disclose if the track the users browser preference or not.
- SSL Support – This website does not support secure communications over HTTPS by default.
- Heartbleed – This is not applicable to this website because it is not HTTPS.
- TRUSTe Certified – This website has not received TRUSTe’s Privacy Certification.
Disconnect for Mac
Disconnect for iPhone
Disconnect also has an iOS privacy app. Disconnect for iOS requires iOS 7.1 or later. It is compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. This app is optimized for the iPhone 5, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus. The iOS app has all of the same features as the Windows and Mac clients. It will let you see and block tracker and ad requests, privately search, access the Disconnect VPN servers anywhere you want, automatically block malware threats, and access site privacy policies at a glance with privacy icons. The below image illustrates the iOS app.
As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone and other iOS devices are connected through the IKEv2 (IPsec) protocol with a 256-bit AES cipher to the Disconnect VPN servers.
Disconnect Pro for Android
Disconnect has an app for Android as well. This app requires Android version 4.0 and above. A screenshot of the app is shown below. The app supports the same feature set as the other Disconnect software platforms.
Disconnect Review: Conclusion
Disconnect is a new type of for-profit company that believes that corporations have a responsibility to society and the environment. They believe that people should be able to control who has access to their personal information and browsing habits not nameless entities who make profiles with no transparency. They have built a reputation in the personal privacy space for the browser extensions and mobile apps they have developed to help people see and block invisible trackers, conduct secure search queries, and stop malvertizing.
Recently, Disconnect expanded their privacy suite to incorporate a VPN service. They have a small VPN network by most standards with servers only in four regions which include the USA, Europe, Asia, and Germany. Their VPN service supports the OpenVPN (TCP/UDP) and IKEv2 (IPsec) protocols with a 256-bit cipher. These protocols have allowed them to build a responsive and secure VPN service. They also make it compatible with a variety of devices. Their custom Disconnect software is available for Windows, Mac OS X, Android, and iOS.
What I liked most about the service:
- Custom clients for Windows and Mac systems
- Nice custom apps for Android and iOS devices
- Simple one plan pricing with an annual discount
- No individual usage logs are kept
- Open source code available for all to see
- Support for two of the most secure VPN protocols: OpenVPN (TCP/UDP) and IKEv2 (IPsec)
- Three simultaneous connections
- Secure search with specialized VPN
- Protection from trackers and possible malvertizing
Ideas to improve the service:
- Better website navigation
- Greater integration of Disconnect software with their browser components to create simpler install procedures for all supported browsers.
- Add mor VPN server locations
- Release the code for their new custom software
If you are looking for just a VPN service for steaming media, then Disconnect is probably not for you because they have servers in only a few locations. They also might not be ideal for those who enjoy P2P because the locations they do have are not known to be privacy oriented. However, if you want to control who has access to your online personal information and what they do with it, then Disconnect is a service you will want to check out.
Disconnect provides a responsive and secure VPN with targeted tracker and malware blocking. Their service will also educate you about invisible trackers and potential malvertising and let you selectively block them. They have great mobile apps that let you use their service on the go and protect you from wi-fi eavesdroppers. Test out some of their free browser extensions and apps for yourself. I think you will be both educated and maybe even a little surprised about many of the common sites that you visit and how they handle your browsing privacy. If you like their browser extensions, I recommend that you subscribe to their premium service and really be protected by their full VPN.