Mobile Apps and the Privacy Debate (Part 2)

Last week we predicted that the recent revelations of NSA data collection might lead to an arms race, and the race is already on.  Today we’ll look at some of the services that saw their popularity rocket in recent weeks, but one of the more startling aspects of this issue is that for once, less really is more.

What do we mean by that?  Throughout this very vigorous debate over 21st century technology and privacy rights, we created an image of the federal government in general, and the NSA in particular, as an all-seeing, all-knowing entity capable of unearthing our most intimate secrets wherever we might try to hide them.  But that’s not at all what’s happening.  The NSA isn’t collecting any of the data (or metadata) in question, merely leveraging its considerable federal authority to persuade those companies who are collecting it to hand it over.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re a company that’s trying to create a customer base for your privacy software, the answer is, quite simply, not to collect any customer data in the first place.  Google employees are for the most part under a self-imposed gag order over the PRISM issue, but if you’re concerned that your searches aren’t private, try DuckDuckGo, an engine that allows users to search anonymously and which has been getting rather a lot of press coverage lately.  If you’re concerned about the privacy of your phone calls and text messages, perhaps give SeeCrypt a try.  In addition to encrypting your calls and texts, SeeCrypt neither maintains nor even gathers data (or metadata) from its subscribers.  Worried about who’s tracking your browsing habits?  Add DoNotTrackMe to your browser.

It’s too early to tell, but according to Dan Auerbach of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this may be the beginning of a consumer-driven trend to decentralize databases of personal information.  But, Auerbach warns, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch.  “It’s important to understand that different tools defend against different threats,” says Auerbach, “and general knowledge about the threats one faces go a long way towards making a user safe.”

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