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Public funds aid software used for porn
USF houses the project, part of tech research. A critic complains.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 16, 2007
TAMPA - With the help of $1.5-million in city and county subsidies, the University of South Florida houses more than a dozen new tech companies.
But only one of them boasts this target audience: the Internet pornography industry.
PrivacyView Software LLC develops programs that encrypt and mask computer files and Internet surfing histories. From the start, when the company touted its product at a 2004 adult entertainment trade show, its core clientele was obvious.
"The days of Internet porn consumers being 'busted' by their spouses or worse yet, their children, will eventually be a thing of the past," began the press release announcing PrivacyView's software. "Now your members can surf with 100 percent confidence that their adult surfing habits will not be discovered."
The company moved into what is known as USF's technology incubator on campus several months later -- unbeknownst to the larger university community and at least one elected official who voted to give the incubator money.
"Needless to say, I was not informed that we would be providing incubation services for a company that wants to help the worst of the worst circumvent the law and engage in what most moms and dads would not think is where they want their taxpayer dollars spent," said state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, who sat on the County Commission in 2005 and 2006, when it approved $800,000 in subsidies.
She had no idea PrivacyView was an incubator tenant, she said, and now she worries the software will make it easier for sexual predators and the like to troll Internet sex sites undetected.
"If you come to us for help," Storms said, "there should be the understanding that you are going to work on things that at the very least will do no harm, and will better society."
Rita Peters, chief of the sex offender division for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, said the senator's concern "is very valid."
"There are millions of computer pornographers out here who are so much more tech-savvy than law enforcement,"Peters said. "This would make it that much easier for an Internet predator. It would make investigations for these kinds of crimes that much harder."
But PrivacyView founder Marty Greif doesn't apologize for his business, and the director of USF's Research Foundation said Greif has nothing to be sorry about.
"I'm proud to have PrivacyView in my incubator," said Rod Casto, executive director of the foundation. "I always remind people, commercial transactions on the Internet came out of a very undesirable sector.
"Way before eBay, people could look at porn on the Internet and pay for it. PrivacyView is a technology-based business, and that meets our criteria."
A profit decision
Unlike software that simply erases a history of sites visited, PrivacyView allows users to save favorite Web sites, plus downloaded pictures and movies, without detection. The software costs $39.95.
The company also offers a $9.95 monthly service that allows users to visit a site without their IP address being identified by the sites they visit. That way, they don't get unsolicited spam from other adult sites.
Greif said that when he founded PrivacyView, he thought his audience would be people trying to protect their mortgage applications and other financial documents.
"I was shocked to discover that a lot of our customers were also visiting these adult sites," said Greif, 50, a self-described conservative who is married with two children. He is a former marketing executive for a software company called MicroSystems Technology Inc.
Greif said he hesitated at first to market his product to the adult entertainment industry, but ultimately it became a business decision to grab his piece of a $10-billion-a-year pie. "It's like the old saying: Why do you rob banks? Because that's where the money is."
PrivacyView's public debut came in San Diego at the 2004 Cybernet Expo, an annual international trade show aimed at business professionals in the adult Internet industry.
He said USF officials "did pause at first" about letting him join the incubator, but ultimately decided he met their criteria.
Casto said PrivacyView is on "the cutting edge of a lot of technologies that can help us all."
The incubator also houses antibiotic developers, a laser printing company and technology consultants.
The more than 50,000-square-foot incubator is housed at USF's Research Park, where officials are pushing to raise the university's profile in bioscience and biotechnology research. It is a key component of president Judy Genshaft's bid to profitably marry USF research with the marketplace.
Businesses work with USF faculty and students on research and business plans while benefiting from relatively cheap office space, shared labs with expensive equipment and other support services.
In 2005, businesses started moving into the incubator, one of two new buildings built by the USF Research Foundation, Casto said. The foundation is a private support organization whose $22.6-million annual budget comes mostly from grants and donations, plus licensing revenue and rent business tenants pay.
Since 2005, the incubator has received $300,000 in subsidies from the city of Tampa and $1.2-million from Hillsborough County. It is part of USF's Center for Entrepreneurship, which recently was ranked as the No. 9 graduate program in the nation by Princeton Review and Entrepreneur.
According to the incubator Web site, USF looks for companies with the "potential to create significant economic impact on the local community."
Casto said he looks for companies with a business plan and enough in the bank to keep going for a year or so while they raise additional venture capital.
In PrivacyView, he saw competent management with lots of software experience and a valuable, potentially profitable product. "If they were doing anything that would harm our reputation, then we would have issues," he said. "But they're a technology company engaged in legal commerce. We have a stem cell company in here, too, and that's not looked upon well by some people."
Greif said his business now is focusing more on home and personal use, and corporations are inquiring about using it to protect employees' privacy.
He's enjoying such success that he's thinking about finding new offices. "We're at the point where we think we're outgrowing the incubator."