“On the internet no one knows you’re a dog,” mused one canine to another in a famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon. Today, though, thanks to techniques ranging from Web browser “cookies” to sophisticated data mining, they may know you’re a dog-and even which breed.
Companies can combine information voluntarily submitted by users with data automatically transmitted by a user’s Web browsers and other software to provide a detailed picture of an individual. In some cases, interested parties can discover detailed personal information about people who visit their Web sites or use their software.
Montreal-based Zero Knowledge Systems (ZKS) believes it has the solution for people worried about online privacy. In December the company unveiled Freedom, a system that uses sophisticated encryption software and servers to cloak the true identity of an Internet user behind a pseudonym that no one other than the user-not even the company-knows. While there have been previous efforts to provide anonymous Web and e-mail access, they have been far less sophisticated than Freedom, according to analysts. “ZKS Freedom is the strongest and broadest privacy-enhancing technology I’ve seen,” says Jason Catlett, a privacy advocate and president of Junkbusters, a company that helps consumers reduce the number of online and offline “junk” messages they receive.
A Freedom user downloads the client software (for Windows 95 or 98; MacOS and Linux versions are in the works) from www.freedom.net and installs it on his or her computer. An annual fee of $49.95 allows the user to register up to five separate identities, or “nyms,” that identify the user while visiting Web sites, sending e-mail or performing any other Internet activity. Multiple layers of encryption, by both the client software and a series of servers used by Freedom to route traffic between the user’s computer and the rest of the Internet, prevent anyone from intercepting the packets and connecting the nym with the user’s real identity.
Some observers doubt that technology alone, as opposed to regulation, can solve the privacy issues on the Web. Austin Hill, president of ZKS, puts his faith in technology. “I’d prefer to have my privacy protected by strong encryption than by a promise from anyone,” he says. However, he acknowledges, “technology can’t solve everything, so there needs to be a mix.”