In case you haven’t actually been online in the past few months (or watching television, or listening to the radio), the biggest Internet scandal ever exploded when Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government was collecting private user data from companies like Google, Facebook, and Yahoo using the National Security Agency’s PRISM program. The outrage was fast and furious, with popular sites like Reddit calling for protests and U.S. Representatives John Conyers (D-MI) and Justin Amash (R-MI) introducing legislation that would have limited the NSA’s ability to collect electronic information. While the amendment was narrowly defeated, where do we stand as a country on this issue? The question of whether people are truly changing the way they behave online seems to depend on who you ask.
“Many people are taking a step back and evaluating the digital life they’ve created,” says Karl Volkman, Chief Technology Officer of SRV Network, Inc. Some people are re-evaluating their social media sites, going so far as to delete friends they think may be potentially damaging to their reputation and double-checking photos as well. Volkman goes on to say that “we are going to see a drastic increase in web browsers that do not collect a person’s private information.” But the numbers may tell a different story. Adoption of private browser use has risen dramatically, yet lags far behind traditional search engine sites like Google.
A private browser is a search engine similar to Google or Yahoo that does not store your data and does not send your search terms to any of the sites you visited for that search term. It also encrypts your IP address and other user information so you can surf the web with some level of anonymity. Duck Duck Go, Ixquick, and Startpage are three private browsers that have been experiencing a usage spike since word of PRISM broke. Searches per day increased by 50% on Duck Duck Go in eight days after the NSA controversy leaked to the public. Eleven days after the start of the scandal, the site was registering 3 million unique searches per day, or 90 million searches per month. And while these are impressive growth numbers for any site, when you consider the fact that Google is holding steady at 13 billion searches per month, it doesn’t appear that the needle is moving all that fast on folks jumping ship for more online privacy.
In my opinion, this issue ultimately comes down to whether or not you choose to have an online presence at all. Because if you do, there will always be some individual or some company or some government organization that could potentially have access to your personal information. I’m not saying that the invasion of our privacy is justified, but it just happens to be an unfortunate by-product that comes with the territory. We should all be actively monitoring what we put out there on the internet, as well as Googling ourselves to see what else might be lurking on the web. We’re all hoping for the policy changes that will curtail some of the government’s power over our personal information, and part of that is our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable to protect us. But in the meantime, I believe if this whole PRISM thing makes folks take a second look at how they’re representing themselves on the Internet, then at least one good thing has come of it after all.
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