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Have the NSA Leaks Just Helped the PETs Industry?

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

Okay, at this point, we all know about the NSA leaks—if not, where have you been?!?

But, did you know it was the best traffic week to-date for anonymous search site DuckDuckGo?

According to this VentureBeat post, direct searches on the search site were up 26 percent on Wednesday alone. DuckDuckGo founder Gabriel Weinberg told Ricardo Bilton that this is further proof that people want alternative, privacy-enhanced choices to popular sites. “We offer that in web search,” he wrote, “and there are others that offer it in other verticals. As people find out about these alternatives, they make that choice.”

So will these NSA leaks be a boon for consumer-oriented privacy-enhancing technologies?

In this IT Business Net report, VPNReviewz CEO Michael Maxstead said the NSA disclosures further illustrate the need to use privacy software.

Perhaps software and services like Tor, which helps protect online privacy by onion routing, may see an uptick. Unfortunately, as of today, their metrics end on June 10. But here is their response to the PRISM disclosure. Combined with other software like HTTPS-Everywhere and Tor Browser, e-mail messaging service Enigmail or the community-run social networking site Diaspora (there are so many options and products, my apologies to those not mentioned), a user’s identity can receive some modicum of anonymity. And there is other software like Collusion to see who is tracking you online and PrivacyFix, which helps block online tracking and manage online privacy settings.

The point is, there are plenty of products out there to help protect a consumer's privacy online. Whether they protect users from NSA surveillance is another topic altogether (one partially covered below). But with this recent leak, perhaps we will see more people using privacy-enhancing technologies and software and maybe that means more revenue for these still nascent companies.

One site that's quickly stepped into the breach (no pun intended) is prism-break.org, which connects various free software designed to protect privacy.

But on his blog, privacy advocate Alexander Hanff has called the site “dangerously misleading” and has asked that it be taken down. Hanff writes this:

“However much we might love organisations such as Mozilla (and believe me I am a huge fan and know their lead privacy guy Alex Fowler, personally) to state that they are safe from NSA surveillance orders is simply not true. The same with DuckDuckGo, Wordpress and any other service which is either U.S. owned or has servers in U.S. datacenters—these services and technologies simply are not immune to surveillance and should never be listed as such.

I urge people to do their own research before using any of the services or technologies in the list on PRISM-break.org—please understand that if it has legal links to the U.S. (even a U.S. parent company) then it is vulnerable to U.S.  surveillance laws and is simply not safe.”

I take note of Hanff’s point. But this NSA news could also help drive more user awareness of privacy issues and possibly economic incentives for businesses.

For instance, NBC News is reporting on online anonymization and differential privacy—something some have proposed could be applied to online behavioral advertising. The report also notes this: “There is still no economic incentive for companies that collect and store and share web-tracking data to use any of these options. Perhaps if more businesses—such as the DuckDuckGo search engine…gain popularity, an incentive would arise.”

Perhaps these surveillance leaks will help build that popularity and incentive. Clearly, for those making privacy-enhancing technology, this is a big moment.

And for privacy professionals, this is a HUGE moment.

Privacy is in the headlines. More people than ever are getting exposed to issues many privacy pros grapple with each day. (As someone who writes for a privacy association, explaining what I do in the time it takes before someone’s eyes glaze over with boredom has been a challenge. But now, I think that will be a little easier.) 

In Europe, the leaks may have injected a new shot of data protection fervor in the proposed EU data protection regulation negotiations. Will we see a similar boost with the Do-Not-Track talks? Baseline privacy legislation in the U.S.? We'll keep you posted.

photo credit: khawkins04 via photopin cc

More from Jedidiah Bracy

About the Author

As editor of the Privacy Perspectives, Jedidiah Bracy moderates the many views, angles and, well, perspectives that inform information privacy and all its adjacent professions.

In addition to editing the Privacy Perspectives, Bracy facilitates the vetting, writing, editing and curation for the Daily Dashboard, the IAPP Canada Dashboard Digest, the IAPP Europe Data Protection Digest and the IAPP ANZ Dashboard Digest. He writes feature articles for The Privacy Advisor on information privacy law, data protection and the privacy profession.

When not mulling over the current state of information privacy in the digital age, Bracy enjoys watching international soccer, listening to his music library and tasting a finely wrought craft beer. You can follow him @jedbracy

See all posts by Jedidiah Bracy

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