At its core, Anonymizer helps customers conceal their identities by serving as a middleman, receiving their traffic and giving it a new IP address selected from the vast block it controls. In practice, however, it’s much more complicated. As with most things in security, Cottrell says, “there’s definitely an arms race here.”
There are free tools online to help people surf the Web anonymously. Tor, for example, hides identity by channeling traffic through several proxies before it arrives at its destination. Tor, however, also has well-known performance issues. What’s more, Cottrell says that while Tor is a worthwhile project, it doesn’t match the needs of many business customers.
Cottrell says businesses typically seek one of three types of anonymity: they need to look like “nobody,” they need to look like “everybody,” or they need to look like “somebody.” Each need arises in a different situation.
The engineers doing research for a new product, for example, might want to look like nobody. As much as possible, they want their visits to competitors’ websites to look completely unremarkable. In that circumstance, Anonymizer helps them conceal the patterns in their activity, partly by making surfers from the company appear to be different users each time.
On the other hand, take the case of an airline that wants to research competitors’ prices. Cottrell says companies often block competitors from their sites or even feed them false information. In this situation, Anonymizer’s clients want to look like “everybody”—in other words, their inquiries should appear to come from the normal crowd of visitors. In a few months Anonymizer will release a new product specifically designed for this situation. Its algorithms simulate human activity on a website so that a company can make tens of thousands of inquiries without creating suspicion.
Finally, businesses sometimes need to maintain a persistent pseudonymous identity. For example, workers at a security company might want to visit a hacker forum for clues to the newest exploits. In that case, they want to be able to establish a reputation and a username—they just don’t want to reveal that they’re surfing from computers owned by, say an antivirus maker. In this case, Anonymizer can provide a consistent alternative IP address.
When the company opened for business in 1995, Cottrell says, it didn’t take nearly this much effort to conceal client identities—many websites were barely looking at who visited them. As websites have begun trying harder to personalize visitors’ experiences, however, they’ve also scrutinized visitors more closely. This has added urgency to his business. Cottrell says, “The same tools that are useful for customization are useful for tracking people.”