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Privacy software makes post 9-11 comeback

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Despite the attempts of authorities on both sides of the Atlantic to usher in a new Cold War, in which citizens cower stupified under the presence of wiretapping, or window-peeping neighbours, privacy software appears to be alive and well.

Zero Knowledge Systems has added a low-cost surfing plug-in for Windows Internet Explorer that lets you bypass much of the junk that online advertisers and spammers use to build up user profiles. WebSecure costs $49.95 and it works by encrypting and rerouting traffic through ZKS' proxy servers.

But it doesn't claim to be "anonymous", ZKS tell us.

ZKS built the much-lauded anonymous browsing system Freedom Network, only to pull the plug last October, although as we reported last month, ZKS has made the source code available for academics and developers.

"It's not designed to be anonymous," ZKS' Dov Smith told us. "It's a privacy service more than an anonymity service."

"That's because true anonymity is so hard to do. Even with one of the world's best cryptographers, Ian Goldman, Freedom Network took a year longer to complete than expected, and we had to build an international network of servers," he said

Zero Knowledge could be forced to watch and track users, which he stresses it doesn't do, and that's an important differentiator. However WebSecure is immensely useful to the rest of us, although no Mac or Linux versions are planned.

"Freedom Network required a technical overhead and expense at our end, and a fair bit of sophistication at the users end. It didn't have the mass appeal that would translate to a much larger audience," said Smith.

But users do have two excellent choices, the other coming from San Diego-based anonymizer.com, founded in 1996 by Lance Cottrell, author of the Mixmaster anonymous remailer software.

"We haven't had a chance to pick it apart yet," Cottrell told The Register, "but the biggest thing is the version 1.0 phenomenon. So much of the problems are strange browser incompatibilities, and Javascript. Safeweb was riddled with holes," he said.

Anonymizer.com has a closed beta of its "Privacy Button" anonymous browsing plug-in that has full support for Javascript, and the update is slated for release at the end of the month. Both ZKS and Anonymizer take care of the client side, too, we note. The Anonymizer service works on all platforms, although the button itself is Windows-only, and costs $49.96 a year. The company also offers secure tunneling, for $29.99 for three months, through its servers. With insecure (and insecurable) wireless access becoming popular at cafes and airports in the US, this is a model that we hope will become ubiquitous. We'll be putting both systems through their paces and welcome field reports.

Please check out the links below for comprehensive guides to preserving your privacy on the Internet. It's the best favor you can do yourself today, and one in the eye for the window-peepers. ®

The Register guides to anonymous web surfing
Internet anonymity for Windows power users
Do-it-yourself Internet anonymity

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