Peter Sinclair: Faking anonymity with 'Freedom'

Big Brother is lurking in the electron.

The problem of privacy in history's most public century has assumed almost surreal proportions. In 1984, the idea of a Privacy Commissioner would have sounded like something out of Orwell; yet Bruce Slane was appointed less than 10 years later.

The furtive activity of yesterday's spooks has gone hi-tech; now absolutely anyone can press an ear to the biggest keyhole in the world: the Internet.

In human society, there's always been a seesawing balance of power between those who wear masks and those who would tear them off. The Web is now seeing a similar tension between the traditional candour of cyberspace - "open source" code typifies it - and its anonymity, the right to remain unknown.

In earlier days, secretists hid behind anonymous 'remailers'. The most famous of them, Julf Helsingius's anon.penet.fi, can still be found in a fossilised condition at www.penet.fi. He was effectively closed down, oddly enough, by an even more secretive outfit, the Church of Scientology, which persuaded a Finnish court to extract one of his users' names under duress.

Seen by many as shadowy denizens of the twilight side of the Web existing largely for purposes of protest, slander, treason and pornography, remailers nevertheless provided a safe haven for scattered communities of whingers, whistle-blowers and the woebegone. These days, of course, they have to fake their own headers.

The release of the first mass-encryption product, PGP [Pretty Good Privacy - www.nai.com/default_pgp.asp], drew the US Government into the fray, and encryption is still one of the major fronts in the Web privacy war. But last year English schoolboy [Peter Parkinson, 17] started fooling around on his home PC and in under a month developed a 2048-bits encryption [CIPHERTech UBE 98: www.parkie.ndirect.co.uk] which takes 30 billion years to crack, and who can spare that sort of time just to read someone's email?

So it looks as though the freedom-fighters beat the totalitarians - or did they? Last I heard, this Unbreakable Encryption programme had been quietly bought up by a shadowy US company called Atlantic Coast; you can't help wondering how many shares the Feds hold in that one.

Persona-protection reached new levels of security this month with Freedom [www.zks.net], an "Internet identity management system" from Zerøknowledge of Montreal which addresses the trickiest privacy problem of all: the cybertrail of site records, postings, mouse-clicks and email all surfers leave behind them. Your footprints through the void can be tracked and cracked to provide an amazing volume of information about you.

Freedom is designed to expunge them. Essentially, it encrypts just about everything you do and routes your wanderings back through its network, where it decrypts, saves your cookies, dumps the spam and generally bustles about like a combination of Jeeves and Mary Poppins.

At the same time it allows you to wear any number of Web disguises, creating real or fake cards of identity at a cost of $US10 each pa. Not even the company itself can find out whose face is behind any of the masks. Privacy wins again…

And again: Net fury plus a boycott organised by Junkbusters [www.junkbusters.com] and consumer groups ,a href=http://www.bigbrotherinside.org target=_top>[www.bigbrotherinside.org] last week forced giant Intel to modify its plan to include a unique Personal Serial Number on each of its new high-speed Pentium III chips.

While a PSN would identify users in electronic commerce situations, they argued, it could also identify their Net activities for marketing purposes or worse. There's little legal protection for online privacy, although Europe's working on it.

So the war goes on; and as wars always do, it creates its own economy, in this case a thriving data-protection industry. Visit the Privacy Exchange [www.privacyexchange.org] and Privacy Times [www.privacytimes.com] for front-line reports.

You are what you surf. But if you're an all-in wrestler, say, you don't necessarily want the whole world to know that your hobby's embroidery.

BookMarks

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