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Lost in Cyberspace

Anonymity a lucrative market

This article was originally published on March 28, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Sociologists and other assorted experts may enjoy debating whether our desire for anonymity is an inevitable outgrowth of urbanization or an effort to avoid accountability (and, truly, they do debate such topics), but the capitalists among us know there's money to be made in providing that most valuable of commodities, anonymity.

And in the online world, technology makes anonymity fairly easy. (Of course, that same technology also makes it easier for those with the inclination to watch over us.)

One of the earliest political battles involving personal computers was over a program to help make files and e-mail secure from prying eyes. In the late 1980s, Philip Zimmermann, author of a program called Pretty Good Privacy, was charged by the federal government with violating U.S. export laws for putting shareware versions of PGP on the Internet, where it was accessible from all over the globe. The government finally dropped its case against Zimmermann, but only because of public outrage.

A few years later, Johan Helsingius began the first anonymous e-mail service,, out of Finland. In 1996, though, a Finnish court ordered him to turn over some of his records to the police. He refused, and shut down the service instead.

Of course, human nature being what it is, the more governments try to strip away citizens' ability to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, the more those citizens are going to want it.

And be willing to pay for it., based in La Mesa, Calif., offers both a free (limited) and paid service that allows users to browse the Internet anonymously. By serving as a sort of proxy, prevents Web servers from gaining any kind of information about you or your computer. The free service is rather slow, though – no doubt an inducement to get you to open up your wallet and buy the paid (faster) service.

The company also offers secure anonymous e-mail (so your message can't be traced and you can't be identified), and even dial-up accounts that completely keep your identity and location hidden from snooping eyes on the 'Net.

The site also contains a link and promotes the heck out of a shareware program called Window Washer that can wipe all traces of your online activity off your computer system. It erases your history files from your browser, your Windows history (recent documents) file, and empties your Recycle Bin. There's even a version for the Mac. Both versions have a 30-day free trial you can play with before you decide whether the program is worth the $30 for the full version.

PrivacyX, a Canadian outfit, is offering a free e-mail anonymizer (the company generates income by tacking a banner ad onto each e-mail message sent through its server). Be warned, though, the PrivacyX service isn't all that easy to set up – you ought to feel pretty comfortable fiddling around with your software settings before you sign up for their service, which uses either Netscape Communicator or Microsoft Outlook. Either way, you may have to fiddle with it for a bit to get it working just right.

The neat thing about PrivacyX is that, even if someone gets a court order to force them to tell who you are, they can't – their system is shut down so tight even their computers don't know who you are.

Which means that a repeat of the situation is pretty unlikely.