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Users flock to anonymizing services after NSA snooping reports

However, even vendors offering those services can't guarantee 100% success in shielding data from government surveillance

By Grant Gross
October 10, 2013 03:55 PM ET

IDG News Service - Companies offering anonymous Web browsing and communication services are seeing a huge increase in business since recent news leaks about the National Security Agency's mass data collection and surveillance activities.

Disconnect Search, an anonymous Web search service that launched Monday, had more than 400,000 searches by users by Thursday morning, said Casey Oppenheim, its co-founder. Disconnect, which also offers users a service to block companies from tracking them online, started working on Disconnect Search more than a year ago, before the first leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were published in June.

But Oppenheim said the continuing revelations about NSA data collection are driving users to the search service, he said by email. Web searches are among the most personal information that companies or the government could collect about someone, he said.

"In comparison to search surveillance, I'd probably rather have my phone tapped or my email tracked because I'm filtering myself when I communicate with others in those ways," he said. "Most people don't filter their searches and don't understand how their queries are being tracked, saved, and turned into profiles that are associated with their real names and/or their IP address."

Disconnect Search, a browser extension, allows Web users to continue to use their search engine of choice, but the service routes search queries through Disconnect's servers. The service also prevents search engines from passing keywords to sites that are visited from the search engine's results, and it encrypts all queries.

Another anonymous search service, DuckDuckGo, has seen a steep increase in searches since the Snowden leaks. In May, the month before the first Snowden leaks were published, DuckDuckGo users searched 54.4 million times. In September, users searched 116.7 million times, said a spokesman for the company. DuckDuckGo doesn't collect or store personal information, meaning it doesn't know how many users it has.

Tor, the anonymous browsing project, also has seen a steep increase in use since the Snowden leaks, but it's not easy to determine how much interest the NSA leaks are driving to the project, said Roger Dingledine, Tor project leader.

Tor's user graphs show a spike in mid-August, but that's because a "five-million-node botnet signed up its victims to be Tor clients," Dingledine said.

"We've certainly seen anecdotal growth in interest in Tor, but we don't have any stats to show that more people are using it than before," he added.

Silent Circle, an encrypted communications company co-founded by PGP creator Phil Zimmermann, has also seen an increase in interest since the NSA leaks, but the company didn't immediately have hard numbers.

In fact, Silent Circle decided to close down its secure email service shortly after learning that Lavabit, a secure email service used by Snowden, suspended operations instead of complying with U.S. government demands to turn over its Secure Sockets Layer private key.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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