Wladimir Palant is a privacy hawk and the creator of ad blocker software.
And about a month ago, he discovered something surprising about the Avast Online Security and AVG Secure Browser extensions used by millions for safe web browsing and as an antivirus.
The extensions are sucking up mountains of data on users, far more data than he says is needed to complete the task at hand.
In a recent blog post, Palant put it like this:
"Are you one of the allegedly 400 million users of Avast antivirus products? Then I have bad news for you: you are likely being spied upon."
Then, he continued digging.
And he says he found two more Avast extensions related to price comparisons for online shoppers which are also doing the same thing.
Mozilla pulls Avast extension for Firefox
Palant reported the details to Mozilla in early December 2019. Within 24 hours, Mozilla removed four of the company's extensions from its Firefox browser.
Mozilla has long claimed that privacy is "in its DNA," and must have agreed that something was not quite right to make such a quick move.
The company also just posted that it has blocked one trillion tracking attempts for its users.
Avast buys company that is a marketer's dream, using your data
So what is Avast doing with all the data it has harvested, even from privacy savvy Firefox users?
Palant writes that he was trying to figure it out, and then he stumbled upon an Avast acquisition. It's a company called Jumpshot that sells your clicking data to marketers—so they know you better than you know yourself.
That company's website reveals what it can offer marketers:
"Incredibly detailed clickstream data from 100 million global online shoppers and 20 million global app users. Analyze it however you want: track what users searched for, how they interacted with a particular brand or product, and what they bought. Look into any category, country, or domain."
And it offers real-time tracking if that's what you would like.
It's the kind of information marketers use to increase sales, which increases profits and pushes stock values, which inflates your 401(k).
Sounds good, right?
However, it's also the kind of thing that tech leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook started warning about in 2018. He explains the dark side of this data harvesting like this:
"Every day billions of dollars change hands and countless decisions are made on the basis of our likes and dislikes, our friends and families, our relationships and conversations, our wishes and fears, our hopes and dreams. These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold."
You may be using Avast security extension without knowing it
Now, back to the allegedly spying Avast security and web browsing extensions.
Privacy hawk Palant reveals you may be using the product, and have it spying on you, without knowing it.
"But even if you didn't install Avast Online Security yourself, it doesn't mean that you aren't affected. This isn't obvious but Avast Secure Browser has Avast Online Security installed by default. It is hidden from the extension listing and cannot be uninstalled by regular means, its functionality apparently considered an integral part of the browser."
The Avast extensions are free to download because you are the product. We all know this is a popular and successful business model. However, it flies in the face of what companies like Mozilla claim to be about.
What are Avast and Mozilla saying?
As of this writing, Mozilla hasn't published anything on its blog about the situation.
Avast told ZDNet it's working on the issue. Translation: updates are coming.
"We have already implemented some of Mozilla's new requirements and will release further updated versions that are fully compliant and transparent per the new requirements. These will be available as usual on the Mozilla store in the near future."
And what about the man who revealed the data collecting details in the first place?
Wladimir Palant notes that the Opera browser also removed some of the Avast extensions. And now he is wondering out loud in a new blog post: "what will Google do?"
That is a good question, indeed.
Here are the posts that started all of this: