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Lost in Cyberspace

Technology offering privacy solutions

This article was originally published on June 13, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

One of the bigger worries facing folks who venture online is privacy – how much personal info are businesses gathering about them while they browse, how much of their private behavior is really private?

Before the Internet was opened to the public by Congress a decade ago, most folks who went online did so via dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSs). Many, perhaps most, BBS system operators (or sysops) required at least a valid telephone number before granting you access. Even in those less-worrisome times, when most folks who ventured online were savvy computer hobbyists and cyberspace had more of the feel of a private club, requesting phone numbers or even addresses caused quite a controversy.

At about the same time the Internet was made public, Phil Zimmerman introduced his groundbreaking encryption program, Pretty Good Privacy. With PGP, anyone with a personal computer could make it nearly impossible for anyone else to read their e-mail or attached word processor documents unless you'd been granted access by the sender. But PGP had a rather arcane command-line interface – programmers and other techheads loved it, the general public was too confused to use it.

And besides, the government pressed charges against Zimmerman for supposedly breaking encryption export laws by making PGP available online, which had the effect of making the general consumer a bit worried about using the program. (Under unrelenting pressure from civil libertarians, free-speech advocates and the media, the government finally dropped charges against Zimmerman. PGP is still available, with a much easier to use interface.)

Another early effort to help folks protect their privacy online came in 1993 from Finland, where Johan Helsingius wrote an anonymous e-mail server he ran from anon.penet.fi. But a Finnish court ordered Helsingius to turn over the true identity of one of his subscribers, and he shut the service down shortly after in protest.

Other services offering various forms and levels of online anonymity have also seen courts order them to identify customers for one reason or another, forcing a recognition that anonymizing services don't always deliver what they promise – that to date most anonymizing software has forced the company providing the privacy service to keep in-house records in order to make the whole system work.

All of which means that while using these services may prevent the operators of Web sites you visit from identifying you, should you end up in court or find yourself the target of police investigation, your online records may yet become public.

Congress has, as one might expect, jumped into the issue – proposing all sorts of different laws that would do everything from guarantee online anonymity to prohibit online anonymity. God help anyone looking to Washington for clarity.

While counting on technology to be our savior is rarely wise, it might be less na´ve than depending on politicians. And a new software program out seems to offer the most privacy protection yet.

The folks at Zero-Knowledge Systems have a new privacy client out called Freedom 1.1. Although it's only available for Windows 95 and 98, it does – according to technical folks who understand far more of this stuff than I – seem to offer real privacy.

Freedom 1.1 does this by using randomly generated pseudonyms – even if subpoenaed by a judge, the folks at Zero-Knowledge have no way of knowing which particular user did what on their servers.

The one drawback to the program is that it won't work over a lot of corporate firewalls. But if you're trying to protect your company's private business dealings from prying eyes, it's likely that at least some accounts could be set up by a good systems department to allow for the use of Freedom 1.1. And it should work for most folks at home, although it doesn't work with AOL or CompuServe.

The fact that Freedom 1.1 is secure from itself doesn't mean, however, that clever programmers won't find a way to monitor those using it. But for now, it would seem to be one of the more secure methods of protecting your privacy online.