Antidetect Browsers: Empowering Users to Decide What Personal Data to Disclose

Episode #008

41 min listen

Episode #008

41 min listen
“How individuals can protect their privacy? Well, go download Tempest today. A browser and a proxy, I think, are two wonderful places to start. If you're going to do nothing else, do those two things. ”
Michael Levit, LinkedIn

In today’s episode of Ethical Data, Explained, Henry is joined by Michael Levit, CEO and Co-founder of Tempest to discuss privacy-based browsers - what technology they are built on, how they ensure user privacy, how they differ from VPN and proxies and much more. Spoiler: privacy-based browsers are not about making your browsing 100% anonymous (that would not be a pleasant experience) but about highlighting sensitive areas and letting you decide whetjer you want to share your data or not.

Tune in for more!


Henry Ng - 00:00:00  Welcome to Ethical Data, Explained. Join us as we discuss data-related obstacles and opportunities with entrepreneurs, cyber security specialists, lawmakers, and even hackers to get a better understanding of how to handle data ethically and legally. Here to keep you informed in this data-saturated world is your host, Henry Ng. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome back to Ethical Data, Explained. Today we have a very special guest. He has a list of achievements longer than my right and left arms put together. He is an analytical and entrepreneurial leader, advisor, angel investor with a passion for consumer intent, both direct and indirect. 20 years of experience overall in product business and corporate development strategy and marketing, and I'm really excited to have him on today. He is the co-founder and CEO of Tempest. We have Michael Levit joining us today. Welcome, Michael. How are you today?

Michael Levit - 00:00:55  I'm doing well, thanks. I'm really excited to be here and talk with you.

Henry Ng - 00:00:59  I'm glad. We're very excited to have you. So yeah, as a starting point, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and a little bit about your background,, and how you became the CEO at Tempest?

Michael Levit - 00:01:12  Sure thing. You know, careers are what I'd call a little bit of a random walk. We all have intentions and want to appear smart that I had all of this planned. And the truth is, it just happened. So if you go back in time, I started off life as an engineer, studied mechanical and environmental engineering, and I was coding for a while. And I'm a very competitive person. And what I realized is that I'm an okay coder. And so when you mix very competitive and okay at something, it doesn't go so well. So I did what any okay coder does. I went to business school and so after business school, I came out and wasn't sure what I wanted to do or how I should apply it. So I did what in the US would be called 'Took an undeclared major'. I went into management consulting and in consulting I was asked to go learn to program a new language and I was pretty upset about this. I bitterly complained. You know, it's easy to go back in history and say, you planned this. You were so lucky. No, I actually complained about the assignment I was given. My assignment was to learn this language that at the time was called Oak and was later renamed Java, and that became Accenture or Andersen Consulting at the Times Internet service or their practice.

Michael Levit - 00:02:24  So one way you can say 'I planned it. I became the leader of one of the largest consulting firms in the world's first Internet practice'. The other way is you can say, 'I was done with programming and I was asked to do more. Programming was frustrated'. And that really opened all kinds of doors and led to amazing places. It was not quite the birthplace of the Internet, frankly. I worked with Internet technologies in my engineering role prior to that, so it got started pretty early and did everything from e-commerce to messaging to search and did some small companies, started some companies raised a bunch of venture capital. And the story really gets interesting when I discovered certain kinds of advertising technologies, particularly around search. And what people don't always realize is that search has more intent data than just about anything you do. You're going through and you're searching with all these keywords that are things of interest. That's then being recorded in a profile for you. And that profile is then being used to advertise for everywhere you go. And we tend to think of when we talk, we're giving up all this information. When we type, we give up information. We're just not conscious of how relevant that data is.

Michael Levit - 00:03:35  So I spent a while mining that information, frankly, making lots of money from doing that. And over time I realized I wasn't feeling good about what I did. And so I took a step backward and said, instead of going and mining data and getting distribution, getting people to use search and engage with it and give up data, I looked at it and said, I think it should be the other way around. I think I should spend my life finding ways of protecting users, taking care of them, educating them on your data is these bits of gold, and instead of you giving it all up, you should be aware of what you're giving. You should have certain rights and permissions. And I decided to start a company that's a search engine that doesn't just give up all of your data to third parties. And there are all kinds of interactions between search engines and third parties that we're often not even aware of. And that the user should be in control and they should own their own data. And so I started a company called Tempest, been working on it for about five years, and we just launched our product last month. So pretty excited to finally be out in the wild.

Henry Ng - 00:04:35  Yeah, I mean, from what you said, I mean, not throwing shade on anyone, but it does sound like you're the reverse Zuckerberg of the world where you're trying to protect people rather than harvest that data. And it's a great thing to hear. And would you say that that's the kind of company, mission, and value of Tempest? What or would there be a more core value that you guys look at Tempest?

Michael Levit - 00:04:58  Yeah, I think that first of all, thank you. Putting me in the same sentence with Zuckerberg is an honor. You know, clearly, there are some things where we have different ideologies of data, but overall, I don't think he's a bad guy. He's built an incredible platform and incredible scale. And today I look at search as mostly people have had to choose. You can go and you can use Google where you've got one of the best algorithms on the planet, lots of data, and off it goes. And it gives you results that you as a consumer want. Or you can go have a private experience and a private experience. It'll be less than. And so I have to give up relevancy. I have to give up interesting results in order to keep my data my own. And frankly, it's a really crappy decision. I don't want to have to choose A or B. So our company, Tempest, our mission is really to take away that choice. We want to give you everything we want the best of all worlds where a user is in control of their own data and they get the results they want and everything is kept and maintained private again while giving you those positive results.

Michael Levit - 00:06:01  And that's really hard. But if you go back and look at Google, traditionally Google didn't store nearly the level of data that it does today. Google really became dominant through browsers and through analytics a little bit less obvious. People tend to think of Gmail when I'm typing out an email that they're sucking out all that data. Google has come out and said that they're not using your personally identifiable information or potentially any data from Gmail. And so it's less the thing we think about. It's more every time I'm surfing. The number one web browser is Google Chrome. When I'm surfing around and I'm using Chrome, every click I have is recorded. Think of it as a giant piece of recording software. And with that recording, it's learning about you and it's learning about what's going on in the Internet. Google used to have very relevant information and results prior to having all of that data. So that's really Tempest's goal is to in some ways create the Google of the past where it was still extremely relevant, had great results for users, but didn't have all of that recording capability.

Henry Ng - 00:07:03  Well, that makes perfect sense.

Henry Ng - 00:07:22  In this new kind of digital age, in terms of privacy, what do you think the relevance of privacy and privacy-focused browsers are and solving things like data breaches? I'm assuming from the conception of Tempest, it's one of the most important things to you as an individual. So, what's your kind of view on the market of privacy-focused browsers overall?

Michael Levit - 00:07:49  Yeah. So, there are a few people who've been staring at this a little bit. And really there are two angles. There's angle number one where a company decides they are a search engine and that they're going to create a better search engine. And DuckDuckGo is I don't know how old, but they're probably going on 12 years old now. So they're the OG original gangster of the private search. And so that's one area. And it turns out that consumers don't understand the difference between a search engine and a browser that well. And so if you're a search engine, you probably need to create a browser. Conversely, there's a cadre of people who have started or a cadre of companies that have started off as browsers. And one by one they may or may not be getting into search as well. And the two business models are very intricately related. So the question I always like to ask people is what's the number two web browser? Number one is Chrome by leaps and miles or leaps and miles and kilometers. But number two is Apple. It is Safari. And that's if you're counting every device if you're counting desktop devices number two is Microsoft's Edge. So really you've got these three devices or three browsers. But sitting beneath those things are a whole bunch of others. And traditionally you had Mozilla, which is Firefox, and Firefox has done a reasonable job of taking care of the user. Now there are some things and some add-ons where I don't agree with the direction they've gone and it isn't exactly private, but they haven't done a terrible job.

Michael Levit - 00:09:18  The harder part with Mozilla is their market share has gotten fairly small. They have a rendering engine that sits beneath it and everybody who has a website with any scale goes and tests it with Chrome and the rendering engine that sits under Chrome. And as a user, the single most important thing a browser does is shows you the pages that you want to browse. And so it can be private. But if it's not showing you the pages you want, you can't really use it. So it comes back to what I was mentioning earlier of your goal needs to be giving users great functionality and being private and not making you choose between those two. And so Mozilla over time I think doesn't have a good enough browsing experience. So coming back to the question, you've got two angles. On one side, you've got a search engine, on the other side you've got a browser. We at Tempest believe we have to do both and I think everybody's getting there. DuckDuckGo is building browser add ons and they have a few browsers. Browsers are difficult because you need four of them. You need to have Windows, you need to have Mac, you need to have iOS and you need to have Android, you need to do them all well. To put it in perspective, today, if you were to open your most favorite browser, that's your trusted source that you use all the time, the answer is most people don't even have one of those. A browser is a thing that works. It's a utility. But if you go into your browser, you'll notice that there's something called Incognito mode and you think that'll keep me safe.

Michael Levit - 00:10:38  Well, it turns out most browsers have a fingerprint. This fingerprint has all kinds of data in it. It has what operating system you're running. What operating system patches are you running? What language do you have? Have you changed your language? And then about 30 other things, what's the default font you have? Default font size? And you put enough information in there and guess what? You're pretty identifiable from all of those things. So even when you're in incognito mode, you can be tracked almost perfectly for your data and for what you're doing. So think about that for a second. Take one of these big browsers, they're imminently trackable. You put it in quote unquote. It's the most private mode or incognito mode. You're still completely trackable. And so there are 3 or 4 browsers that are doing a decent job there. And I'll certainly put Brave on that list. They're doing a good job of staying more private. So I'm excited that this is becoming part of a discourse and dialogue that companies are doing a better job in some of them you are having a really top-tier experience now, so now the user has a choice. We're excited that Tempest is part of that choice. We think we do a good job of integrating the browser and the search experience rather than you having to choose one or the other. But few companies are doing a good job on browsers. Few companies are doing a good job on search, and it's going to get really interesting when we all get pretty good at both.

Henry Ng - 00:11:57  And just from that one statement, you've answered my two next questions I was going to ask you about. The privacy-based browsers and why they're not more open to the general public and why people aren't using them and how you differentiate as Tempest from the other privacy. But moving on from that, obviously. 

Michael Levit - 00:12:14  If I can interrupt.

Henry Ng - 00:12:15  Yeah. Of course.

Michael Levit - 00:12:15  Because I think there are a couple more interesting details there. Users still don't realize so much that they have a choice in browsers. I mentioned that, but I can't harp on that topic enough. Someone can go download a browser, install it and they have a choice. So the reason why Microsoft has so much distribution is because when you buy a Windows PC, still Windows is the dominant desktop platform. It comes with Microsoft Edge. Now the number one most downloaded thing after someone buys a new computer happens to be Chrome. There's a perception that Chrome matters. And if there's one thing consumers can take away is they have a choice in that decision, you don't have to use the browser that comes with it. And the browsers of today often are giant pieces of spyware. The other thing is they're getting slower. So if you take something like Tempest, we started with Google Chrome. Chrome is an open-source piece of software. We took Chrome and then we ripped out some of its guts. All those pieces, that phone home, that capture every click that are recording all of those things, we remove those. So at its fundamentals, you're still getting a Google Chrome browser or a browser based on Chromium. When you take out all those other things, our browser is faster than Chrome. So you're getting all the benefits and goodness of Chrome with some of the speed. Now there are two main browser platforms. There are three. There's one evangelized by Apple, which is WebKit. There is one evangelized by Mozilla and Firefox and there is the one evangelized by Google. We still think Google has a lot of advantages with some of its technology that lives there and there are also some disadvantages in terms of privacy so users can really think about that. I have a strong perspective. Clearly, it's biased because I'm running a company in this space, but encourage people to make this a considered purchase because it's important to your information and your data on a go-forward basis.

Henry Ng - 00:14:02  Okay. And that I completely agree and really kind of thank you for going in-depth to show our listeners exactly what choices they can make. I'm sure a lot of our listeners obviously from this being produced from a proxy company have used things like proxies and VPNs in their own time. Do you believe that proxies and VPNs provide the same level of anonymity that privacy-based browsers can offer? Or is there a slight difference between what proxies and VPNs can offer from what something like Tempest can offer?

Michael Levit - 00:14:35  There's no such thing as a silver bullet in privacy. There are also questions about what really matters to you in privacy and why does it matter? A private search engine helps when you go through and you click on a result from a search engine. There's probably a certain amount of data leakage that's going from the search engine to the third-party provider, especially if you clicked on an ad. There is a certain amount of protection by using a private browser. That browser may restrict your IP address. It may get rid of your fingerprint. It will do a variety of things that will restrict the amount of information that's leaking. A VPN will or a proxy will restrict your native IP address and so it will keep that private. There are certain proxies and I should know the answer about yours. Apologies that I don't, that will rotate your IP address as you use it. And as you do that, that will further help and insulate. And you can use all of these together and each time you layer. I always think of it like lasagna. One of our product managers always talks about lasagna.

Michael Levit - 00:15:37  And first of all, it's just delicious to me. But think about you've got your tomato sauce, then you've got your cheese, then you've got a layer of pasta, and then you've got some more tomato sauce and some more cheese. And you can just keep adding these layers and the more layers, the better. It tastes better. And so if you could use a private search engine with a private browser, with a proxy and VPN, the world gets better and better. Now you have to be careful. Just you don't want to spend so much time adding in so many things of 'All right, I'm going on the Internet, put on my gloves. I need my anti-static devices before I can go touch my keyboard'. There are so many steps that it's not practical, but if you spend the time, do a little bit of work and have a proxy and go to the right search engine and use the right browser, and that becomes your behavior, it doesn't have to put in a lot of extra time and really takes care of the user's values for a longer period of time.

Henry Ng - 00:16:27  So it really is about the users doing their due diligence in terms of what layers of protection they want to put in place, rather than saying one is better than the other. It's like a collaborative workforce, which is for our listeners. 

Michael Levit - 00:16:38  That's right.

Henry Ng - 00:16:39  Maybe it's definitely something we should start thinking more about beyond just the proxies and VPN side. So with Tempest as this privacy-focused browser, how do you ensure user privacy? If you're happy to go into more detail in terms of the technology behind it, how does it work to protect users' privacy?

Michael Levit - 00:16:58  You said the browser, not the search engine, correct?

Henry Ng - 00:17:00  Yes, the browser itself.

Michael Levit - 00:17:01  Yep. So, I mentioned earlier that we start with Chromium and so that is our kernel, the basis for Google Chrome for our browser. Then start off with Google does a hell of a lot of good work. So I don't mean to cast too many dispersions here on Google. They're an amazing company and they do a lot of good stuff. They put out all kinds of patches and increases and make it better. Those come out every two weeks. There are hundreds of engineers and it's open source. They don't tell you what they've changed. So when you go to create a browser, the first thing that you have to do is make sure that your browser is up to date if you're using Chromium, because the last thing you'd want is some great hacker has discovered an exploit in a browser that makes it hackable. Google went ahead with Chromium in the core and they made that change and they did that two weeks ago. They pushed the new change out. And as someone who's building on top of Chrome, if you're not up to date with the latest, you have vulnerabilities. By the way, that's a massive challenge. That means we have to keep up with hundreds and hundreds of engineers' code, and then we have to incorporate our changes on top of their changes.

Michael Levit - 00:18:08  So you have a giant set of challenges just doing that. So we started off with building a piece of automation software that will compare the previous version to this current version, what's been done, and can auto update most of the way. So we have a couple of engineers who all they do is update the Google Chrome core. So start there. Then you go through and you say your browser has a whole bunch of attributes that go into your fingerprint. We go ahead and standardize those going across all Tempest browsers. So in terms of what geography I'm coming from, we can pass that through in terms of what operating system parameters I'm having. So all Tempest browsers look the same. If you're going and browsing a site, it looks a little bit suspicious of why do all browsers happen to have all the same operating system patches installed. Why do they? And within reason, by the way, there are certain things that we have to disclose, for example, language or font size. Those are things where we will have variants because you may want a different language than I want and I have a different font size than you want. So within reason, we will go ahead and we'll pass everything through the same except for things that change your visual experience.

Michael Levit - 00:19:17  And so it turns out that's really important to the tracking. Then we're going through, and every site, every link we're going through and we're looking at the link basis. And on those links, we're looking for things that have callbacks to ad engines. So those ad engines will have trackers. And we created a mini report card. And so if you mouse over on something, you can see is this an okay link, is this a bad link? And we'll start informing users and things that are bad. We're going to give something that looks like a pop-up that says, Are you sure you want to do this? Some people may say yes, and we are firm believers of the most important thing here is user control. Users may want to go do things that are completely non-private and there's nothing wrong with that. At the same time, if there's something that's not private, we want somebody to know that that's what's going on. We've detected that and we're going to give them that option. So we build in things like that. There's a hell of a lot of details in the code in how you do this, how you execute this. But getting rid of the tracking, getting rid of the fingerprinting, getting rid of the callbacks that record every click.

Michael Levit - 00:20:16  And some of those, by the way, are done asymmetrically so they don't affect your performance per se, but they do have an effect overall on your privacy. And so we're looking for every one of those things. And then the final thing that we do that's really important is we change the syncing system. So there are a hell of a lot of websites now that will use the browser as an identifier to know. I know this user, whether that's through a cookie, whether that's through some other mechanism. And so we built our own system for keeping track of the users and there's some really nice added benefits to that. An example of that is if I'm storing my bookmarks in my browser, well it turns out that those are shared across every device and that's built into Chrome. It's a pretty nice set of features. I want to share some of my information, but the moment that I'm sharing information between my devices, that means I'm giving the browser information about me. So we've gone and created universal identifiers that are unique to you but know nothing about you. It just knows this happens to be Henry's device, and then we'll share that information across them, which allows you to share your bookmarks and other information.

Henry Ng - 00:21:20  Yeah, it sounds like Tempest is really gunning for that balance between giving users the choice of whether they click on those websites or whether they share their data for their own benefit in some way, shape, or form. Would you say there's any kind of borrowing what you've already mentioned, any other ways that data might need to be shared from an analytics or other front that we haven't covered so far?

Michael Levit - 00:21:44  Yeah, there are lots of data that needs to be shared. So it turns out that if you take away too much data, life gets really complicated and hard. And one of the big ones is passwords. And passwords in some ways are my nemesis. And every now and again I think about 'Should we just go build a private password service'? The truth is there are a lot of good password services out there that we just need to do a series of great partnerships and haven't gotten to that point yet. We just got our product live in the wild. But if you think about it, you go land on some random website. Now we've made that website extremely anonymous. They don't know who you are. Largely that's good. But certain websites will put up some kind of wall in front of you that says you cannot come in if you are completely anonymous. You need to have a logged-in state. Meta or Facebook is a perfect example of this. I'm not going to get any benefits from my social network unless the site knows who I am. Now, essentially, I'm throwing all privacy out the door because I need to let their servers and their site know who I am. Well, again, this comes back to what I said earlier. It's all about user choice. If the user decides they want to engage with Meta or Facebook, that's their choice.

Michael Levit - 00:22:53  By the way, there's a lot of great content that users can get related to their friends. I use those services. Are they privacy friendly? No, not at all. But I still choose to. So as a privacy company, we need to enable that as a browser. We need to enable that and we don't want a user to have to choose that every single time of what's my username, what's my password, give permission to this. So that's another area where we have to make compromises and we have to say users can set that, they can set it and forget it. And so password managers overall are a big category. The second really important category is ad blockers. Adblockers are the number one, two, and three most popular extensions on most browsers. If you go through all the add-on systems through browsers, Chrome and Chromium included, one, two, and three are all ad blockers. Massive amounts of volume. Consumers are clearly voting. I do not want to have that level of ad load. AdBlock and AdBlock Plus are interesting in this regard because they don't take away all ads. They take away most ads. There's a group called the Acceptable Ads Coalition where they go through and they're trying to figure out which data is acceptable.

Michael Levit - 00:24:02  Ads turn out to be pretty important to the Internet ecosystem, to have a balance, to take care of publishers who need that ad inventory in order to make money, to create content because they'll make money either through consumers paying. Most people don't want to pay for content or through ads. And so I think that that acceptable ad coalition is an interesting balance. Yes, I'd prefer to have no ads, but I'd also prefer to have content. And so it's that balance of I'll take ads that aren't offensive that will still pay publishers enough, that allows them the content. So, figuring out that balance there. And so your browser needs to work with the ad blocker to figure out what is an acceptable ad, how am I going to work with that? And then give you settings and controls in order for you to be able to. Maybe there are some sites that they're still having too many ads and I want to block everything. You put me in control of that. Maybe I don't like this whitelist concept that I just want to block all ads. Okay, then I can turn that on. And so what you're hearing from me is a variety of different pieces and controls. And again, it's up to the user to give them the power to own their own data.

Henry Ng - 00:25:03  And on that topic of ads obviously, Tempest is being that privacy browser, do you implement any type of targeted ads or ad selling on Tempest itself, or do you have another monetization strategy that you've put in place?

Michael Levit - 00:25:18  Nope. We are ad-driven, kind of ironic to have a privacy company that is ad-driven. I used to be a little more principled, as I would say, I'd come through and I'd say, we're going to have a paid search engine. We'll make money through users paying us and we'll have no ads and we'll have much better privacy. And it turns out the users don't want that. There's a sliver of a population that A is fairly wealthy and B is so passionate about this, frankly, the way I used to be. And what you realize is you're going to take out 93% of the world by doing that. 7% of the world may or may not. And it really depends by country and by lots of things. But at really high levels, about 7% of the world would consider paying for something like this. And I didn't want to go build a business where I started off excluding 93% of the world. And so Tempest is absolutely funded by advertising. Well, how do you go and you do that advertising? Two important comments here. Number one, for starters, our largest partner is Microsoft on this. So here, I said it. The cat is out of the bag.

Michael Levit - 00:26:24  I'm working with big tech. I don't have a problem with big tech. What we really need in order to have a reasonable business based on advertising is scale. And there are only two ad networks that are keyword based with amazing scale Google and Microsoft, and we get to choose between the two, and neither one is bad per se. Microsoft just happens to be a little more flexible in how they would work with us, and so we get keywords coming back from them. 100% of our targeting is based on the keyword that you are searching for at this given time. So we have no memory in our advertising of what's been done in the past and we never will. And we're also not giving it to any third party other than Microsoft, which is our ad partner. We have to send them the keyword string. So we say the user went and searched for XYZ. Microsoft gets XYZ. They get the market that the user is in because they need to know, is this someone in the US? Is this someone in San Francisco? And we give them a general direct market agreement area. So that might be London, that might be San Francisco. So you're getting the area and you are getting the keyword string and nothing more.

Michael Levit - 00:27:31  Why do we give them those things? Well, in America, if you go search for Giants score, it turns out there's a baseball team here in San Francisco called the Giants. And it turns out that there's a football team in New York called the Giants. And depending on the time of year and the geography, the user may want to have a different result. And an advertiser may want to have a different result. So it turns out that geography is really important and the keyword string is important. But this lack of ongoing knowledge and targeting we think is really important. It means we make less money. To be clear, if I held on to every search query and then used it in retargeting everywhere we went, we'd make more money. But it violates the principles and ideologies that we founded Tempest upon. And so we are going to continue to have this ephemeral. It's here today, it's gone tomorrow, ideology and we can make enough money. Google used to be able to live on that and they did just fine. And Tempest will continue on that and we will commit to that. We are not going to go further than that even when we have our level of success.

Henry Ng - 00:28:30  Great to hear. Great to hear. And during obviously, the startup of Tempest and having been on the advisory board for Dolphin since 2014, what would you say were the biggest challenge and influences to formulating and developing this privacy-focused browser? Was it your time at Dolphin? Was it just your personal experience or does it go further than that?

Michael Levit - 00:28:56  So if those of you who are on video can see the gray hairs here and those come from lots of business challenges and lots of years at this stuff. And so 2014 is the Johnny come lately. If we rewind the tape and we go back and we look at, frankly, my time at AOL. I joined America Online or AOL in 2001. At that time, it was one of the largest, if not the largest, Internet company in the world. And I had the fortune or misfortune of almost by accident, being involved in a deal between AOL and Google. And we started distributing the Google Toolbar. And so the way this worked is AOL had the number one instant messenger AIM, as it was called, with hundreds and hundreds of millions of users. And it was desktop software or laptop software. And every now and again you'd need a software update, much like you get apps on your mobile phone today. And we would push an update and someone brilliant came up with this idea of when we push a new version of AIM, it would say, Would you like to get the Google toolbar? And the Google toolbar would go and reset lots of your settings on your browser. Google was a great service. So we were pushing a great service and people would start using it and then Google would pay us and it turns out massive numbers of people switched to Google as a result of that. That made lots of money for AOL.

Michael Levit - 00:30:17  That made lots of money for Google. So overall, really good deal for everybody. And consumers largely benefited. But it started this journey and this kind of data exchange where, frankly, I learned a lot about that value exchange and how it works. And today I think browsers are the natural evolution of that. I didn't understand kind of what that deal really meant in a larger ecosystem with hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars changing hands based upon it and changing user defaults because users, as we started saying a while ago, is that a browser is utility users don't pay a lot of attention to it. And so if you give them some button that says change my utility and everything largely works, similarly, users say okay, and they hit the button that gets them into the cheese, gets them onto the next step so that they can go use their instant messenger. That hasn't changed a lot today. People are starting to understand more. They're starting to care more and that's great and that's exciting. And users, you know, you'll hear this constant refrain from me. Users need to be considerate in these choices and these decisions. And for someone building a company around that, I decided I wanted to have something that's going to going to do well for users long term rather than just have this, give me another piece of cheese, click through, off I go, and making it easier to have that cheese that users can have that positive behavior.

Henry Ng - 00:31:39  Amazing. And obviously, that's where Tempest came from and where you started. Let's talk about looking into the future and the upcoming six months, a year now that you guys are in the public domain. What are some of the upcoming features and updates for Tempest on the roadmap?

Michael Levit - 00:31:58  Yeah.

Michael Levit - 00:31:58  So you talked about VPN, you talked about proxy. We need to go do some partnerships to really integrate that tightly into a browser. We played with it a little bit. We need to have a variety of options to have that integrated into the browser. We think that that that's an important one. Number two. We believe a little less in Big Bang launches where you drop a bomb and everything changes. It's about incrementality. And so our search engine changes every day. It could be that we have these things called Wow tiles. So it turns out the number one or number two most popular search is the weather. And what you don't want to see is ten blue links when you go search for the weather, you want to see a little sunshine or more often than not, a little rain cloud. But nonetheless, you want to see pictorially, you want to see the weather. And so the more answers that we can give at the top of mind and top of the page, the better. And so we're constantly working at those. And so it's a little piece of intelligence that's sitting there along with lots of content partnerships to go ahead and integrate those. So those are the biggest changes that you'll see on a day-to-day basis that almost nobody will notice because it's that embracing incrementality. The big bang, drop a bomb on it. What's really going to change is AI. And Microsoft has been doing an amazing job with ChatGPT and capturing people's imagination and their attention. And OpenAI has been doing an amazing job at building this incredible technology.

Michael Levit - 00:33:31  That stuff is big. It's exciting. It's also really scary to me because when you start coming through with AI, this comes back to consumer expectations. Number one, what data is being collected? Not sure. Suddenly we have another layer of data. It's potentially going to another third party like the AI engine that's sitting behind it. And consumers, when you give them one answer at the top of the page in the form of a Wow tile or otherwise, you're giving them an answer. When you give someone ten blue links, it kind of feels like Go Fish. You go figure out what's the right answer for you. When you give them one big thing at the top of the page, even if there's a bunch below it, it kind of feels like that big thing is the right thing. What happens when AI is surfacing that and 72% probability that's correct. The user doesn't understand that we assign some probability associated with it. So the thing that we spend a lot of time looking at, thinking about, and pondering is AI, and that's the one that's going to change the business. Candidly we're going to be a little bit of a laggard on some of these things because I think the technology is dangerous from a privacy perspective and even more dangerous from an accuracy perspective, because if you're inaccurate and someone assumes that it is the correct answer, you're essentially a giant disinformation spreader or misinformation, I should say. And so we want to be very careful and considered at the same time. It's something that I'm incredibly excited about and really nervous about.

Henry Ng - 00:34:58  Amazing. And I've got one final question that I'm sure both users and listeners for Tempest and proxies would like to know. What is your advice to the individual who is looking to protect themselves in terms of a privacy standpoint online?

Michael Levit - 00:35:17  Well, other than the obvious go download Tempest today. I think that every user has a choice in this equation. A browser and a proxy I think are two wonderful places to start. If you're going to do nothing else, do those two things. Get a browser. By the way, most browsers come with a default search behavior. So take something like Safari. Safari by default is Google, even though it's a decent browser. Google's pretty tightly integrated into that. You can change it. But go get a browser, go install a proxy, do those two things. I think you'll be in good shape if you want to go on and take step three in your browser, think about what the default search engine should be. That gets a little more in the nuances, but you can go ahead and choose that and change that. If you do those two things, you've largely taken control of your data. So think about it, but for a lot of consumers, you don't want to think too much, it's too painful. You just want to go and enjoy the Internet, which is exactly what you should do. But if you take those three steps or even two steps, you're going to be in a much better, safer place.

Henry Ng - 00:36:21  And to round off, we always ask all of our guests, we've got three core questions that we'd like to ask everyone. The first one is Who in the world of data or technology would you most like to take to lunch?

Michael Levit - 00:36:31  In the world of data or technology would I most like to take to lunch? I think Tim Berners-Lee, who has done a ton for the Internet. He really helped invent a lot of the standards that allow us to go and roam the Internet freely. And then he's done a lot in continuing to maintain that through standards boards and bodies and keeps the Internet more open than maybe anybody has done collectively or as a whole.

Henry Ng - 00:37:04  I'd like to call him Mr. World Wide Web. If for those who don't know who he is. But no, that's a great answer. And beyond the person. What software could you not live without on a day-to-day basis? Could be an app, could be software that you use for work. But what one thing makes your life a lot easier than if you didn't have it? Yeah, you'd have to put in that extra effort every day.

Michael Levit - 00:37:29  So I did some thinking about this. I've heard this question from other interviews you've done. And I came up with all kinds of what seemed like appropriate answers, but I decided that I'm going to choose the one that's that's applicable for me that maybe is a little less appropriate for a privacy-oriented CEO. I'm going to pick a Google property. Google has a flight tool. It's, so it's on the Web. And Google bought a company that is in flight management. I love to travel. I've been all over the world and it's funny as I'm also an environmentalist, so I care a lot about the planet. And so it's doubly embarrassing saying that a flight tool. A flight tool and Google are the things that I choose. But the technology is so amazing to be able to go through and save you money, pick flights, look at destinations. It's just so well done. It's hard for me to say that I could live without that. And so it is the one that I have to pick, even if it doesn't necessarily align with all of my personal values.

Henry Ng - 00:38:29  We definitely won't judge you for that. You said you work for companies in Europe and in the US. You're just doing your job half the time when you need to fly. And I completely agree. Google Flights is great. I've been linking it with using VPNs, so checking flight prices from different countries and booking like that. It's always great fun and always saves some money that from that side. I genuinely thought you might go with the old GitHub, which I think 70% of everyone that's been on this podcast has gone with. But it's great to hear something a little bit different. The final question we have is when have you used data to solve a real-world problem that you've had? Could be professional or personal?

Michael Levit - 00:39:08  Yeah. So this one is the easy one and the hard one. I use data to solve problems every single day, and it's a lot of fun to go do that, but it's not necessarily easy. I'll choose the one that I use almost every day. So, we also have an app business. So we have an app called Phoner. Phoner is a private phone offering. It's frankly not as big. It's not the thing that's our tent pole, but it's something I care about because I tend to like to use my phone. And depending on who I'm calling, if I don't know someone, if I'm calling a vendor, if I'm calling whomever, I want to be able to keep my phone number anonymous. And by the way, every now and again, a phone number gets compromised. It gets out there on the Internet in some way. And then I'm getting spam calls. And so I want to throw away that phone number and get a new one. So we like that service a lot. The question is how do you market Phoner? And the truth is, we've got to go buy ads. It all comes back to ads. And so the data problem that we end up solving is called CAC-to-LTV. This is a classic marketers problem. So CAC is the cost of acquisition.

Michael Levit - 00:40:16  How much do I have to spend to get a person to install our application Phoner? And it turns out that number equals roughly $15 or $20. So we may spend $0.20 to get someone to click on an ad, and this is all about statistics and coming back to the how are you using data? So you're going to use those statistics to look at that and you're going to say $0.15. But what percentage of this time does someone click through to our landing page? What percentage of those people then click through to actually install it? And so it turns out it's roughly $20 to get someone to install it. And then that's the CAC-side cost of acquisition, LTV, or lifetime value. How much money do I make from a user using the product? Well, we have a monthly version of the product. We have an annual version of the product. We have to figure out what's the combination on average of what someone's going to do and how long are they going to stick with us. If somebody stays with us for ten years, even at $2 a year, it means I make $20, I'll make all my money back. Or even if I charge $4 a year, now I'm getting $40. I really like I spend $20 to get someone to install the product and I get $40 out.

Michael Levit - 00:41:22  And so CAC-to-LTV is the data or problem that we're using most frequently. It's not maybe not the most interesting, but it's the most frequently. And for my world, you can go get more and more data sources and overlay all of those data sources that help in media buying that can drive that $20 of cost of acquisition down. And that's really tempting. It's like a siren song. You're kind of being sucked in. Would you like to get more users for less money? Yeah, that sounds good. You also need to engage in ethical practices of how you're going to advertise and what data sources you're going to use. And so we're trying to practice what we preach when we're an advertiser. We're trying to not overlay too much data or buy data that we could use in those ways. And so it's a really interesting one. And so that's where problem-solving comes into this. We're going to do this all the time. We're going to problem-solve of how do we still have a business, but how do we also treat customers with respect and use data that they've consented to rather than data that's been acquired through third-party means that we don't feel good about.

Henry Ng - 00:42:25  That's all we have time for today. I just want to say a quick thank you to Michael once again for joining us and for sharing your thoughts. It's been an absolute pleasure and we hope that we can have you on again at some point in the future, maybe when Tempest is really full steam ahead and we can get an update from you personally.

Michael Levit - 00:42:45  I would love that. Thank you for the time and for putting this together. Love the podcast. Thanks.

Henry Ng - 00:42:49  Brilliant, guys. Thank you very much. It's me, Henry Ng. Signing off Ethical Data, Explained. We hope to see you next time. Thank you very much. 

Henry - 00:42:57  Ethical data explained, is brought to you by SOAX, a reputable provider of premium residential and mobile proxies. The gateway to data worldwide at scale. Make sure to search for Ethical Data, Explained in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, or anywhere else podcasts are found. And hit Subscribe so you never miss an episode. On behalf of the team here at SOAX, thanks for listening.

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Michael Levit

Silicon Valley Entrepreneur and CEO and co-founder of online privacy company, Tempest.

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