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Staying anonymous online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 29, 2004
(Issue 2222, Better Safe Than Sorry)

There is a difference between anonymity and privacy, even if the self-proclaimed "privacy experts" seek to blur that distinction. Privacy is all about having others' respect your space; anonymity is being unseen, unheard, unknown.

At night, at the end of the day, even the president has his privacy. That doesn't make him anonymous.

Still and all, there are times online when we might all like to be anonymous. A few new tools, and some old ones, help provide you a certain amount of stealth.

Register this!

More and more daily newspapers are going to a visitors registration system – there's no charge involved, but you have to create a free account and then sign in each time you visit (or activate your cookies to bypass the login on future visits).

The reason for this is financial – by gathering demographic information about you (the registration process usually involves a short questionnaire, including your age, gender, income, interests, online purchasing habits, etc.), these sites can then offer a reader profile that allows them to better target their advertising campaigns. A lot of big-money advertising agencies demand an accurate reader profile before they'll make a buy.

So you get the news for free, and the paper gets a better package to offer advertisers to underwrite the news you get.

Except that registering is a pain. Or maybe you're one of those privacy hawks who doesn't want to give up even a shred of your personal information in exchange for free news.

Regardless, there's now a tool that lets you bypass any free registration front doors – it won't work on any paid subscription sites, because that would be theft. This is more like ... well, I suppose a fib. is a searchable database of login names and passwords for sites like the L.A. Times, Washington Post, New York Times and more.

It seems to be legal, because there's no requirement that you enter valid information. How many of our loyal readers always fill out those registration forms accurately, anyway? Have you never entered the wrong gender or a 1926 birth date just out of frustration?

If you go to the web site and click on the FAQ, you'll find a link to the Poynter Institute Web site with an ongoing debate about whether this whole bypass thing is ethical.

When we checked, there was certainly no consensus on that issue.

RIAA who?

For those who have shared music online and are now fearful of the long arm of the legal department at the Recording Industry Association of America, there is a new anonymous file sharing program available.

Mute is a peer-to-middle-ground-to-peer non-centralized file-sharing protocol whose developers claim makes it much more difficult for the RIAA and other interested parties to track specific file-sharing activity online.

By masking the IP addresses of the sender and receiver, and by always running connections through multiple hubs, the Mute folks seem to think they've made it tougher for the RIAA spies to find out who is hosting pirated music.

Of course, Mute is merely technology – and there are plenty of legal, legitimate uses for sharing files over the 'Net. At the same time, child pornographers could also use this technology to conduct their sick and shameful crimes.

There is a technological explanation on their Web site that goes beyond my understanding – tech heads should use the URL above and check it out for themselves.

Mute clients are available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Unix computers, all for free. There are no fees for using the software, either. As it is an open-source project, there is also likely no one for the RIAA to sue.

For those who prefer anonymity while online, Mute might be worth checking out.

Anonymize me

One of the first anonymizing services is still online. San Diego-based allows you to surf the Web and/or send e-mail by using their servers as a proxy that hides your real IP address from the servers you are accessing.

The free Web-browsing service is slower than Moses; they also offer an unencumbered service for those willing to pony up some cash for a subscription. As you use their servers, this service will apparently work with any platform – Windows, Mac, Linux.

They have also developed software applications for Windows that eliminates spyware and cookies.