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PC World

Anonymity guaranteed on the Internet

April 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:35 p.m. EDT (1635 GMT)

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Does a private network ensure user privacy or make it easier for hackers?

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In this story:

The downsides of privacy

Worth the price?


by David Needle

(IDG) -- Superman had a secret identity, and soon you may too, thanks to Zero Knowledge Systems (ZKS), an Internet security company that wants to give Web surfers total online privacy.

ZKS has created the Freedom Network, a band of 50 Internet service providers that route encrypted data through what the company says is an untraceable path. Any data that represents your presence on the Internet is encrypted and bounced around servers in the Freedom Network so there is no digital trail of who you are or where you've been.

For the time being, participation in the Freedom Network is free while participating ISPs finish testing their software. A full-fledged Windows-based client is due out later this summer for $49.95, complete with five secret identities, aka "nyms," or pseudonyms. A 45-day free trial version will also be available. After the first year, the cost is $9.95 per year, per nym.

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"We're giving Internet users total privacy, which they've never had before," says Austin Hill, president of Zero Knowledge Systems. "We don't even ask you to trust us because even we don't know where you are browsing."

You don't even have to belong to a Freedom Network ISP to join, though Hill says there may be some performance advantage if you do. ISPs in the Freedom Network tend to be small to midrange players, with larger Web providers taking a wait and see approach. "Later on we'll want to bring some of the larger ISPs on board," says Hill.

The downsides of privacy

"The privacy feature can't degrade the user experience, it has to be invisible," says Jim Balderston, Director of Zona Research. "And if you are promising 100 percent privacy protection, you have to deliver because consumers aren't going to accept anything less."

Some people worry that greater Internet anonymity means more scam artists and criminal activity. For example, an anonymous Web surfer might have an easier time harassing people online. However, ZKS attempts to limit online harassment by honoring requests not to receive e-mail from nyms. And harassment should be somewhat limited because it costs money to establish a pseudonym, according to Hill.

"Like all freedom, this can be abused or used for good," says Hill. But, he adds, "we don't outlaw cars because people sometime have accidents in them."

Worth the price?

Still, are privacy guarantees worth even a small price to your average, law-abiding Web user already paying $20 or more per month to get online?

For a lot of people, yes. Parents, for example, might join the Freedom Network so that their children can participate in online chat rooms without divulging their identity.

"The issue of privacy is a substantial one," says Zona's Balderston. "People don't realize how much information has already been gathered about them. When you start seeing pop-up screens that say 'You bought boots at such-and-such a Web site, now check out our camping gear,' that will be distressing to a lot of people; they're going to look for some way to have anonymity online."

ISPs also benefit from joining the Freedom Network, Hill says, because it limits their legal liabilities. "We've seen cases where users get into a flame war that ends up in a civil suit and the ISP gets dragged in," says Hill. "It's a lot easier to be able to say, 'I don't have any data on this.' It's an encrypted stream of traffic."

"Our customers are deeply concerned about online privacy," says Paul Engels, vice president of I.D. Internet Direct, Canada's second largest ISP and a member of the Freedom Network. Engels calls the ZKS network "the most comprehensive and credible effort to put privacy back where it belongs -- in our customers hands."

Online privacy

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