New Trend: Be Invisible Online

Businesses spend years and millions of dollars making it easier for customers to find them online, but an emerging trend suggests they also are seeking ways to be invisible.
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Businesses spend years and millions of dollars making it easier for customers to find them online, but an emerging trend suggests they also are seeking ways to be invisible.

A study last year from the Pew Internet Research Project found that most internet users would like to be anonymous online at least occasionally. The report said that 86 percent of users have taken steps to remove or mask their digital footprints -- ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet address.

Technology companies have created ways to use the latest techno trappings -- but without leaving a digital paper trail. I have often mused that being "off the grid" and therefore not beholden to technology could become the new status symbol, but in the meantime, some new offerings strive to hide and even erase online activities.

Most of us are aware that we can turn off web browser settings that track our history. Private browsing makes sense when you are using someone else's computer, want to view pages without historical cookies influencing performance, or want to keep your web activity private. One survey from a couple of years ago suggests that nearly 20 percent of web surfers have used private browsing.

Mobile app Snapchat enables users to share photos and short videos via text message, but the catch is that they disappear after 30 seconds. Originally thought of as a clever way to erase a "sexting" trail, the company is popular for sending selfies, funny pics and videos -- not just illicit stuff. With the ongoing fear that a foolish text might come back to haunt us, perhaps this is a way to avoid future online reputation management problems. With this in mind, it is not surprising that investors are enthusiastic about its myriad uses: Snapchat recently received another $20 million in venture capital on top of its other investments, bringing its value up to $10 billion.

The potential to make billions will always inspire competition, and the emergence of Snapchat has drawn the attention of tech billionaire Mark Cuban. The Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star recently launched Cyber Dust, another text messaging app that -- you guessed it -- enables you to send texts that disappear and can't be tracked. Cuban says he was inspired by a desire to have online conversations that are more like face-to-face communications. In the offline world, normal one-on-one conversations are not recorded, so after something is said, it's gone. Cuban says his text messages in the past have been subpoenaed, misinterpreted and manipulated by lawyers after the fact.

And then there's GoTenna. This one's not an app but rather a personalized antenna that enables you to send text messages to another person also equipped with the same device and located within a few miles. Advertising suggests it's a way to stay in touch when traveling in remote areas -- like a group of hikers staying connected in an area without cell service. Marketers also say it's a way for friends at a crowded outdoor event, like a concert, to communicate even if the mobile grid is overwhelmed. And according to GoTenna's website, "Messages are end-to-end encrypted and not stored anywhere. They also can be set to self-destruct once the recipient reads it."

Maybe I'm a cynic, but I originally thought there was something sneaky going on. Are we clamoring for ways to communicate more privately, or are these products designed to evade some other form of detection? However, the more I talk with people, the more I discover that many are craving online and offline privacy -- and worrying that an online misstep will hurt them now or in the future. Plus, a $10 billion valuation of Snapchat says the smart money is on this being more trend than fad. Perhaps this digital version of "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" will become part of how we all communicate online in the future. We say it -- and then it's gone.

What do you think? Are these new twists on communication based on a desire for simple privacy, or more on a desire to evade detection of untoward activities? Let me know.

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