Privacy Apps And Services Are The Only Tech Companies Winning The NSA Surveillance Scandal

Once considered tools for tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy theorists and stealthy corporate executives, software that allows you to hide your tracks online may have found its moment.

As details of the broad scope of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programs have continued to emerge over the last week, services and apps that focus on privacy, encryption and preventing online tracking have surged in popularity. Most of the companies that market themselves as privacy-focused alternatives don't hold onto user data, so they have nothing to turn over to authorities.

"Our traffic is going crazy," said Gabriel Weinberg, the founder and CEO of Duck Duck Go, a Pennsylvania-based search engine that, unlike Google, Yahoo and Bing, doesn't collect or store the data of its users. "We've never seen this quick [of an] increase in traffic."

This week, DuckDuckGo had four days in a row of record-breaking traffic, according to metrics the site makes available. On Thursday, the search engine had 2.46 million queries, a 33 percent increase over the previous Thursday. (Still, the site is so small that Comscore doesn't include it in its search engine rankings.)

While a mention on CNN and an appearance on Bloomberg TV this week have certainly contributed to Duck Duck Go's rise in popularity, Weinberg attributes a majority of the recent growth to the fact that the government's Internet surveillance program, known as PRISM, has become "a water cooler topic of conversation."

"All of our users are telling people about [DuckDuckGo] in their conversations," Weinberg said. "It's finally an opportunity for them to tell their friends and family."

Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst and attorney at Abine, a company that provides online privacy tools, said that downloads of its free DoNotTrackMe browser add-on -- which blocks commercial web tracking -- increased 42 percent this week.

"Almost all surveillance starts with private companies," said Downey. "So staying more private online means keeping your data out of the hands of private companies that feed the government. It's like a data supply chain."

Seecrpyt, a 2-month-old communications app that encrypts calls and text messages, and doesn't keep any metadata about its users, first saw a spike in downloads last month with the disclosure that the Justice Department had seized phone records from the Associated Press.

"We started it because we thought there'd be a need for privacy," said Harvey Boulter, the company's chairman. "People are increasingly creating more and more technologies that are invasive. We thought there'd be a backlash at some point."

This may be the backlash Seecrypt has been waiting for. While Boulter wouldn't reveal hard figures, he did say that downloads of the app have quadrupled over roughly the last week.

Vic Hyder is a retired Navy SEAL and the chief operations officer of Silent Circle, a communications service that provides encryption of video and phone calls, as well as text messages and email. He said that the company has signed up five times more new subscribers this week than on average. He added that as part of a promotion, the company this week decreased the price of its service by half, to $10 per month.

Hyder said that Silent Circle doesn't hold any information about which users communicate with whom, so if authorities were to come to Silent Circle and say they knew of a criminal using the service, the most the company could do would be to shut down the account in question.

But moving from an online world where personal data and communications are stored on a giant corporation's servers takes time, said Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group focused on digital civil liberties.

"I think it's great and exciting that people want to switch away from central services that act as big repositories of data for spy agencies," said Auerbach, "and I think there are viable alternatives. But I think it's not as easy as flipping a switch."

Auerbach advised people who may want to move to more privacy-friendly services to spend several hours researching the available options and what they do and do not protect.

"It's important to understand that different tools defend against different threats, and general knowledge about the threats one faces go a long way towards making a user safe."

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