In the blink of a few recent news reports, using an Internet search engine has lost its innocence.
In the last week, traffic to Dingledine's Free Haven Project, where free software to anonymize Web sessions is available, has skyrocketed to an average of a quarter million visits a day in the last few days.
And San Diego-based Anonymizer.com, which sells another version of online protection, said Thursday that it has seen a spike of more than 20 percent in sales of its online identity protection feature.
As this boomlet shows, demand for Web anonymity features is taking off.
The catalyst for this sudden activity was the recent disclosures that Internet search engines Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and America Online have supplied federal investigators with data about their users' search habits.
Other events inside and outside the world of technology have contributed to the trend as well, as more consumers and enterprises realize that the Web is no longer the unregulated medium it once was.
As the Internet increasingly hosts more communications and information gathering, so grows law enforcement's need to monitor the digital domain.
The public is also dealing with news reports about secret government wiretappings and jailing of U.S.-captured terror suspects in foreign prisons.
Discussing the popularity of his software, Dingledine said, "I think the main reason is that a lot of stories have been hitting critical mass together: anonymous blogging, wiretap worries ... and people are starting to pick up on the fact that there are so many opportunities to collect personal information about them and their activities."
Online forums are now full of Internet search users venting about their newfound paranoia regarding a once nonchalant act.
"Privacy is back in the limelight," said Anonymizer.com product manager Lee Itzhaki.
Meanwhile, a recent survey of 1,000 Internet users concluded that more than half object to search engines turning over any information to the government.
Three-quarters didn't know some search engines collected such sensitive material as a visitor's IP address, a unique number necessary to use the Internet.
"I'm interested to see if the search companies who handed over info to the feds lose any market share and/or total number of searches in the future due to sharing data with the government," wrote Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch.
Some businesses are profiting from this state of affairs. At Free Haven, the newfound search paranoia could be the rainmaker it's looking for.
The project is bust, having exhausted its last round of funding. Dingledine, although not drawing a salary, is keeping the project going, he said. So far, as of Thursday, despite humming servers and a public consciousness primed for his product, he has had no luck finding additional funding.
"One of the big questions from the Tor project's perspective now is where we should go next—we need to find some new sponsors to fund further scalability and usability work, since we have more users than we can handle right now," Dingledine said.
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