A Big Boost For Net Privacy

New software makes it easy to hide cyber-identities, aiding free speech--and crooks

I recently came across some software that lets you cloak your identity on the Internet. It got me thinking about the whole issue of anonymity on the Net. Suppose a political activist in a country with limited civil rights sends an E-mail to an American human-rights group describing dreadful working conditions in a U.S.-owned factory. The plant's owners have to make changes--but not before local authorities, who monitor Internet traffic, throw the activist in jail. There, anonymity would have helped illuminate a problem.

Now, suppose a child pornographer delivers his wares by E-mail. Authorities intercept the transmissions, but because the pornographer has successfully hidden his identity on the Net, they are unable to identify or find him. In that case, anonymity has protected a felon.

HIDING PLACE. Whether you find these scenarios troubling will probably determine how you react to new software designed to allow people to send and receive E-mail, post messages to discussion groups, and participate in online chats in perfect anonymity. If, like me, you find both scenarios troubling, how well this software works becomes almost an afterthought.

It has always been possible to hide your online identity. But doing something more convincing than pretending to be a dog in a chat room required an intimate knowledge of Internet protocols and the use of such obscure tools as anonymous remailers.

A forthcoming program called, simply, Freedom, from Montreal-based startup Zero-Knowledge Systems, offers the same anonymity to anyone. (A test version of the program should be available for download from www.zks.net in the next week or two.) When working with Freedom, you use regular E-mail programs, but, when activated, the Zero-Knowledge software replaces all identifying information in your transmissions with pseudonyms. Your E-mail then automatically goes first to Zero-Knowledge's servers, where the traffic is further disguised.

You have then hid your identity from everyone--from the idly curious to law-enforcement officials with subpoenas. Any digital tracks left with Zero-Knowledge are also instantly destroyed. "Even we don't know who people are," says Zero-Knowledge President Austin Hill.

The software will sell for $50, which includes five pseudonyms and the use of Zero-Knowledge's systems for a year. After that, maintaining each pseudonym costs $10 per year. The system relies on cryptographic technology that cannot normally be exported from the U.S. Since it is governed by more liberal Canadian regulations, Zero-Knowledge plans to export around the world.

Who needs the sort of anonymity that Zero-Knowledge offers? The company points out correctly that E-mail sent on the Internet is about as private as a postcard. Postings to Internet discussion groups are saved indefinitely in searchable archives, and a youthfully indiscreet message could come back to haunt someone years later. Internet chat, a mother lode of youthful indiscretion, is also being logged and archived.

Still, I wonder if this response isn't a bit extreme. I believe fervently in the right to free speech. I'm pleased that the Internet means that freedom of the press no longer is restricted, as A.J. Liebling once said, to the person who owns one. But I've also seen enough damage done by anonymous rumor and innuendo to recognize the danger that lurks in freedom without responsibility. I'm glad that a product such as Freedom will be available. But in the end, I hope that not many people will feel a need to use it.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.