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Source: CNN.com

Posted on March 19, 2001

      Bob Myman has stopped buying things over the Internet.

      The 50-year-old entertainment lawyer has good reason: His credit card number was posted online in December by hackers who broke into a Los Angeles-based credit card processing company.

      "The protection levels aren't there yet," said Myman. "I'm not comfortable about the Internet."

      Myman is worried not just about Net security but also about the online harvesting of Web surfers' data. He's far from alone. A UCLA study last fall found that nearly two-thirds of Internet users think people who venture online put their privacy at risk. The fear is not just of identity theft, but also of third-party Internet "cookie" files.

      Many Web sites -- or more accurately advertisements posted to those sites by third parties -- place such files on visitors' computer hard drives and use them to acquire useful marketing intelligence.

      Web bugs can be even more invasive. They are little pieces of Web code used mostly to track people's online behavior. Bugs can, however, be written to reach across the Internet into unprotected computers and steal files.

      Myman doesn't know much about Web bugs and cookies -- but says he knows enough to be thinking about shielding himself from them. For that, he can turn to a growing array of privacy-enhancing products designed to make Web-surfing anonymous.

      One of the most popular is "Freedom" from Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc. It protects by routing data through the Montreal-based company's network servers, which strip off identifying information about users before sending the data to a Web site.

      By masking the numerical Internet address that identifies a user's computer, Web sites are prevented from tracking the user, who effectively surfs under an alias.

      "We give users tools to protect their privacy but those tools also allow them to choose to disclose more information to those who they trust," said Austin Hill, a co-founder and chief strategist of Zero-Knowledge.

      If a Freedom user decides to make a purchase, they can "unmask" themselves.

      Dozens of other privacy protection products exist, including Privada, Anonymizer, IDzap and Somebody. Typically, they offer anonymous surfing and multiple aliases as well as cookie management; some cookies are desirable, like the one from your bank or online broker that remembers your password.

      About a half dozen privacy products block banner ads and some are effective against Web bugs, says Richard Smith, chief technologist of the Denver-based Privacy Foundation.

      Web bugs can be fairly innocuous, providing advertisers with data on who is visiting a Web site. Or they can be intrusive, passing information that surfers enter into online registration forms to advertisers or marketers, said Smith.

      Web bugs need cookies to function. Tommy Wang, director of the Pittsburgh security startup Intelytics, says about 85 percent will set a cookie on an unprotected surfer's computer.

      "Basically they leave just a bread crumb on your computer and they're able to track you," he said, noting that an Internet scan of 51 million Web pages by Intelytics in December -- including the Web's top 100 e-commerce sites -- found 30 percent to host Web bugs.

      Smith is now testing a Web bug detector that says "uh-oh" every time it encounters a bug. "What we're hoping is that if people see the Web bug, they'll contact the Web site and ask why," he said. "So it's sort of putting social pressure on Web sites."

      Intelytics is working on a product called Personal Sentinel that Wang said would work similarly. Programs including Webwasher, IDcide and AdSubtract block out banner ads, cookies and some Web bugs, said Smith.

      But privacy-enhancing software has its drawbacks.

      First, it can hamper performance, since some services route through private servers that can make surfing slower. Some programs require considerable computer savvy. And the better ones cost money.

      Meanwhile, there has not been a ground swell of demand for online anonymity. It only appeals to about 5 percent of the population, said Christopher Todd, a Jupiter Media Metrix analyst. "Most consumers aren't aware that it's an option or an eventual reality," he said.

      All the more reason to put the onus on Web sites and Internet service providers, privacy advocates say.

      Zero-Knowledge helped create in January a research group that hopes to build anonymous and pseudonymous communication directly into the Internet's software underpinnings, making it as ubiquitous as e-mail.

      Whether or not that ever happens, Internet providers could today choose to configure their servers to give subscribers some degree of privacy.

      Most don't, but America Online does to some degree. Though AOL itself knows quite a lot about its subscribers, as far as Web sites on the Internet are concerned, they all share the same IP addresses.

      Privacy activists think the more people learn about online privacy threats, the sooner they will clamor for built-in or government-mandated protection.

      Online anonymity, they say, appeals to a far wider audience than wary online shoppers or adult Web site visitors. Government and corporate whistle blower, AIDS hotlines, political dissidents and battered women are among important constituents.

      "Technologies that facilitate anonymous use of the Internet are really critical to the survival of the Internet as an open and democratic forum," argues David Sobel, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

      While government and industry hash out legislation on Internet privacy, entrepreneurs are developing software that enables businesses to set and enforce privacy protection rules.

      An Intelytics product alerts executives if Web bugs creep onto their company's Web site in violation of corporate privacy policies.

      Hill says Zero-Knowledge is working on establishing managed privacy services for major multinational corporations, which he would not name. He expects Net users will eventually be able to get whatever degree of anonymity they desire -- with little effort -- because "a huge percentage of all privacy-enhancing technologies will end up being embedded."

      "Ultimately, we have a vision of the world where people will have kind of a centralized place where they can define their privacy preferences," said Hill. "So I can go in and say, 'I want my wife to be able to know my location on Friday at any point, whether I'm with my car or my phone, because I want to hook up with her for lunch."

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