As the U.S. government continues to pursue former NSA contractor Edward Snowden for leaking some of the country’s most sensitive intelligence secrets, the debate over federal surveillance seems to have abated somewhat—despite Snowden’s stated wish for his revelations to spark transformative and wide-ranging debate, it doesn’t seem as if anyone’s taking to the streets to protest the NSA’s reported monitoring of Americans’ emails and phone-call metadata.
But that doesn’t mean privacy is dead: even before the NSA story broke, more and more companies were producing apps designed to eradicate and obfuscate user data, guarding sensitive communications from prying eyes.
Late last year, for example, startup Silent Circle launched software tools for mobile devices to encrypt data while in transit, including PGP email (interoperable with external email clients) and secure video chat; its Burn Notice feature can erase messages and files after a few seconds. In December 2012, Facebook launched Poke, which nukes pictures, text and video after a predetermined amount of time. Poke was the social network’s response to the popular Snapchat, which gives images the ability to self-destruct.
On the enterprise side of the equation, there’s Voltage Security, with a variety of encryption and tokenization tools; Liaison, which traffics in communications and transaction encryption; and, for database security, Application Security. In a recent email to Slashdot, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also recommended that the security-conscious consider Tor, HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure), and host-proof cryptographic platforms such as SpiderOak as methods of locking down sensitive data and communications.
Will the recent revelations about the NSA lead to a spike in demand for sophisticated privacy software, leading to a glut of new apps that vaporize or encrypt data? Will privacy become a hot new segment for developers and startups?
Americans are certainly concerned about privacy. In September 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a poll suggesting that more than 50 percent of smartphone users had decided not to install a particular app because of concerns over how the software stored and shared personal data. Other surveys have indicated similar worries over sanctity of user data.
However, individual privacy concerns might not be driving investment in privacy and security software—concern over sophisticated hacking of corporate and governmental databases, and the resulting theft of valuable intellectual property, has been powering an uptick in security-related investment since at least early 2012. Tech companies might not care overmuch about your personal data—indeed, shielding your personal data prevents many IT giants from selling ads against it—but they will respond to deep-pocketed businesses’ need for hardened communications and digital storage.
Ultimately, business will be the driver for security and privacy software. It’s just not an exciting topic for most people, who will rush to download the latest iteration of Instagram or Plants vs. Zombies, but who often throw up their hands and profess ignorance when asked about how they lock down their data. Those sophisticated enough—or paranoid enough—will continue to seek out solutions. But it’s unlikely that privacy is poised to become the next explosive growth opportunity, despite the current headlines.