SafeWeb's Anonymous Browsing Service

Free, Web-based service covers your surfing tracks and foils privacy-stealing code

A New Yorker cartoon shows a canine typing on a computer and telling his four-legged companion, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But in fact, Internet snoops can often determine not only whether you're a dog, but also what your favorite dog food is. In addition to information leaks from online registration forms or cookies, you're also susceptible to surveillance--by entities ranging from governments to your company's IT department to hackers on a shared cable modem network--who can learn a great deal from the Web sites you visit.

WEB PROXY WAR. SafeWeb is a free online service that defeats snoops by routing your Web wandering through proxy servers. The concept is simple: Instead of requesting a Web page directly from a site, you send your request to a proxy that fetches the page and passes it on to you. Your target site sees only a request from SafeWeb; it can't tell where the page goes after that. And anyone watching your Net connections sees only communication between you and the SafeWeb server. For good measure, SafeWeb also scrambles your communications using Secure Socket Layer encryption.

SafeWeb offers one or more advantages over competitors: It's free (supported by nontracking banner ads), it handles complex Web pages with dynamic code such as JavaScript and Flash, and it's a Web-based service that doesn't require software. SafeWeb's closest competitor is Anonymizer, a $50-per-year Web-based service that's been around since 1996. (Anonymizer offers a limited-function free version on a trial basis only.) Like SafeWeb, Anonyizer uses proxy servers to obscure your identity, but it does not provide SSL encryption for the pages you download.

Another competitor, Zero-Knowledge's Freedom 2.0, is a privacy and security software suite that provides some services for free--including a personal firewall and a cookie manager--but charges $50 for a full package that uses a chain of proxy servers and a number of encryption algorithms to hide your identity. See our review "Fortress PC" for recent evaluations of Anonymizer and Freedom. (SafeWeb first appeared in late October, after we had selected products for testing.)

SMOOTH SURFING--MOSTLY. To use SafeWeb, you navigate to its home page and enter the URL of the site you want to visit. The first anonymous page takes a while to download because SafeWeb adds a toolbar frame to your browser window that includes the SafeWeb menu buttons, a field for entering URLs, and a slot for the rotating banner ads that support the service. Once the bar is in place, however, things go much more quickly: In my informal tests, downloads took only about 50 percent longer than usual--just perceptible over a dial-up connection and negligible over broadband.

SafeWeb works with Internet Explorer versions 4 and higher, as well as Netscape Communicator versions 4 and up, but it's not yet compatible with Netscape 6. (SafeWeb representatives say they are waiting for Netscape to work out the bugs in that new browser.) It happens to work with Opera if that browser is set to emulate Internet Explorer, although SafeWeb does not officially support Opera.

My browsing experience with SafeWeb was smooth, but there was an adjustment period. You'll have to forgo your old bookmarks, since they point directly to the sites you want to visit and not to the anonymous path through SafeWeb's proxy servers. But the SafeWeb toolbar has a button that runs a JavaScript to add new, anonymous bookmarks to Internet Explorer's Favorites list. (This feature does not work with Netscape.)

MORE THAN JUST ANONYMITY. With SafeWeb you can also block potentially harmful code (such as JavaScript, ActiveX, or VBScript), suppress annoying pop-up windows, and block cookies. According to SafeWeb, if you choose to filter scripts the company's servers will examine Web page code and toss out anything that looks suspicious, such as a JavaScript with self-modifying code that could fetch and transmit your IP address or notify spammers when you open their e-mails. Anonymizer's filtering option, in contrast, throws out all code other than HTML, making it impossible for your browser to display some complex Web pages.

SafeWeb lets you block all cookies or just those that profile you online. It can also delete all cookies when you close your browser. However, SafeWeb itself uses a nonprofiling cookie to remember your preferences. So if you block or delete all cookies, you'll have to reset that preference for each browsing session. Competitors like Anonymizer and Freedom also offer cookie management, and SafeWeb doesn't offer much beyond the built-in features of Internet Explorer, Netscape, and Opera. For reviews of more-sophisticated cookie managers, see "Three Tools That Make Cookies More Palatable."

SNEAKING PAST THE CENSORS. While Web surfers in most countries may worry about an unregulated Internet without privacy protections, others worry about excessive regulation. Governments in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Syria routinely block access to Internet sites they consider inappropriate for their citizens.

To bypass the censors, SafeWeb created an application called Triangle Boy. Instead of directly accessing blacklisted Web sites (which often include SafeWeb), users connect to individuals in countries without Internet censorship who agree to run Triangle Boy on their PCs. Triangle Boy passes Web requests to SafeWeb, which returns the verboten pages in encrypted form to the original requestors.

Triangle Boy currently works with Linux and Windows 2000 machines that have broadband connections and fixed IP addresses, but support for Windows 9x and NT systems with dynamically assigned IP addresses is in the works.

Triangle Boy may entail some risks for its hosts, however. Gregor Freund, president of firewall maker Zone Labs, cautions that Triangle Boy systems are not hidden on the Net and therefore could be targets for denial-of-service attacks from angered government censors or hackers who spot a target. A flood of legitimate requests could also bring down systems. "I wouldn't put it on a mission-critical machine," says Freund.

SafeWeb makes anonymous browsing as easy--and cheap--as possible. But it does require some extra work and exacts a performance hit, only to address dangers that are still theoretical for most people. I'm not worried enough--yet--to forgo my unsafe surfing. You may feel differently, though. If you do, SafeWeb is your best bet for stealth surfing.

By Sean Captain,

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