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The Anonymizer

If you're not concerned about the your privacy on the Internet maybe it's time you should be. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the idea that your personal data somehow belongs to you is pretty much history.

Many web sites track surfer movements and transactions. Much of the time, this potentially sensative material is kept within the company - unfortunately all too often it isn't.

With e-commerce and advertising income still low at many commercial web sites theres an understandable temptation to use this material to make a quick buck.

There are legitimate reasons for tracking web site activity. Web sites have a legitimate need to understand how surfers are navigating their pages. For one thing, many advertisers will not pay for banner placement without information about web site traffic. It wouldn't be fair to ask commercial sites (which after all are businesses) to go without what is in many cases the only real money a company is bringing in.

Monitoring isn't the problem. The problem is profiling - the practice by which data merchants are able to build sophisticated profiles of consumer tastes and buying habits by collecting information from sources around the web. The accuracy with which technology can assemble a detailed background file on an individual is shocking - and has led to protests by more than one electronic privacy group, including the Web's Electronic Frontier Foundation, tk and tk, and calls for government intervention.

Government in the United States has been historically slow to action in matters relating to commerce on the net. Since the early nineties the Clinton Administration has pursued what could be accurately described as a "lassez net" policy of avoiding regulation. In contrast, the European Union passed a comprehensive if slightly draconian set of privacy rules earlier this year, limiting the ability of Internet companies to collect and resell data.

The problem clearly lies in the potential for the abuse of what should obviously be privliged information. Take a moment to consider the implications of each of the following possibilities.

Insurance companies could theoretically obtain access to confidential medical records and deny coverage to consumers. In fact, an insurance company wouldn't even need to get their hands on your medical records themselves.

Policy decisions could easily be made on the basis of the web sites you visit and the queries you type into search engines.

Does denying adequate health-care on the basis of searches for information about HIV or other potentially expensive (from the point of view of an insurer) diseases, sound fair to you?

Another hypothetical - an employer decides to do a thorough web-based background check. In addition to hiring an agency to look into your driving record, history of past drug use, possible criminal associations and so on, the employer can easily find out what you've been up to on the net. Personal home pages can be examined. (And are).

Posts to discussion groups and newsgroups can remain in cyberspace for eternity. It doesn't take a particularly clever employer to have sometime take an hour or two and check out what you have to say about the upcoming election or what your posted views on gun control might be.

Under the circumstances many surfers (regardless of whether you have something to hide) you many l want to consider taking preventative measures. Sites like the Anonymizer are a good first line of defense.

The Anonymizer is intended to combat such abuses by allowing users to cover their tracks. Visit the Anonymizer before you start your surfing session and your movements will be masked. You'll appear on server logs only as an anonymous visitor.

The site also provides an anonymous hosting service for those who want to post a web site but prefer their identity to remain undisclosed.

Critics claim software like this is an open door for criminals (pedophiles in netpol) to mask their movements, a valid concern for government agencies and law enforcement trying to maintain order on the web. However, in this case, the constitutional issues involved outweigh any possible damage the criminal element could do.


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