On June 6, only a day after news broke that a massive National Security Agency program received approval to collect data on every Verizon telephone call made in the United States, traffic spiked on anonymous search site Duck Duck Go, said founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg.
By June 8, when confidential files on the NSA Prism program revealed the agency collects search history, email content, file transfers and live chats directly from the servers of companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype and AOL, traffic for the anonymous search engine based in Paoli, near Philadelphia, had shot up by 30 percent.
By June 20, Duck Duck Go's traffic had increased 75 percent, an indictment of the idea that private lives are quaint in an age of social media sharing and terrorist threats, Mr. Weinberg said.
"People say privacy is dead; I think that's a myth," he said.
Duck Duck Go, Seattle-based email service Riseup, and Mountain View, Calif.-based Mozilla's Firefox browser are only a few of the dozens of proclaimed surveillance-free products that have seen a boost in usership since the NSA spying program was revealed.
All are part of a coalition of more than 70 companies listed on Prism-break.org, a website designed to promote operating systems, Web browsers, email encryption, social media networks and other services that are not included in current government surveillance programs. And while services such as Riseup and the Tor Browser Bundle, an encrypted Web browser provided by the Walpole, Mass.-based nonprofit Tor Project, share mission statements aiming to support political activism and whistle-blowing, news of the NSA programs is introducing the fringe products to the general public.
Overseas, the NSA surveillance program has been a boon for companies dealing in electronic privacy, said Harvey Boulter, chairman of Pretoria, South Africa-based mobile privacy company Seecrypt.
Seecrypt, which uses a series of passkeys to allow users to store and manage encrypted phone calls and text messages on their own devices, serves 120 countries but only had a few American customers prior to the NSA revelations. One week after the programs were revealed, Mr. Boulter said the company saw a 200 percent increase in the number of inquiries from the United States, despite the fact that U.S. government officials have repeatedly denied NSA programs monitor the content of phone calls. While most of those new inquiries came from American citizens, he said, it won't be long before American companies follow suit.
"Interest in the United States was pretty low compared to other spots around the world," Mr. Boulter said. "But as more individuals realize the need for privacy, what you'll find in the next era is companies and shareholders working to protect trade secrets and support privacy."
A shift toward complete online privacy might be more attainable for private companies with trained IT staff than the everyday consumer who wants to protect their PC, said Lorrie Cranor, director of Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory. While installing a Firefox browser, which provides add-on tools such as Do Not Track, is a relatively simple process, novices may be hesitant to take on the task of managing the features of an encryption program.
"Using encryption software is a solution that's been out there a long time, but I think the general public doesn't understand what it is. It's not all that readily accessible to people who are not tech experts," Ms. Cranor said.
Mr. Weinberg agreed that some services just are too technologically advanced for average Internet surfers, but he said he has noticed a trend toward making privacy technologies more user-friendly. He lauded the desktop program Chat Client, which allows instant messaging without data storage, and the encrypted Web app Cryptocat for easy-to-understand formats that help users shield their data with only a few clicks. For iOS mobile phones, Mr. Weinberg suggested the Silent Circle app for encrypted mobile, video and voice and for Android he suggested the TextSecure app for encrypted text messages.
But even in light of the anti-surveillance sector's maturity in America, it's not at all clear whether the majority of citizens find them necessary.
A study released by Pew Research Center on June 10 showed that 56 percent of Americans said the NSA program tracking telephone records is an acceptable way to investigate terrorism and 62 percent said investigating terror threats is more important than an intrusion of privacy. However, a CBS News poll conducted June 9 showed that while 75 percent of respondents approve of the government collecting phone data of terror suspects, 58 percent disapprove of the collection of innocent American citizens' phone records.
The conflicting polls may not provide much insight to how the American majority feels about government surveillance. However, Mr. Weinberg said surveillance companies whose success in America depends on public opinion, are paying close attention to the results.
"Over the last few years there's been a steady increase in these companies," Mr. Weinberg said. "Whether that will change, slip or accelerate, depends on how big public reaction is to this. And part of that depends on how many more facts are going to come out."
While privacy products can offer some degree of protection and peace of mind, it's tough to say that any single product, or even a combination of them, can completely block a user from all forms of surveillance, said Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist with the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Mr. Schoen said users could use a program with a secure https connection, which blocks activities on a given site, combined with Tor, which blocks a user's trail of activities and hides their location, for comprehensive protection. But even in that case, the NSA could track traffic entering and exiting the Tor network to find out whether messages are linked to communications sent by a single user. He said users should educate themselves on what each privacy tools offer and, if possible, defer to an expert before installing a privacy program.
But even the best tools aren't enough to conceal data if the NSA wants them bad enough. According to documents obtained by U.K.-based newspaper The Guardian, the NSA can appeal to keep domestic communications that have been encrypted for up to five years to crack the codes hiding the message.
"In the case of NSA surveillance, I think people need to understand that a national intelligence agency that has received tens of billions of dollars a year and a mandate to develop technical capabilities to spy on people is a formidable adversary and people are unlikely to be able to totally counteract those capabilities by installing a couple of apps," Mr. Schoen said.
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.