How to buy online anonymity.

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Nov. 1 2005 1:34 PM

Privacy for Sale

How to buy online anonymity.

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When you surf the Internet, you leave footprints everywhere you go. Google conceivably knows every term you've searched for and every e-mail you've sent and received. Cookies greet you when you return to a site and track your movements when you stay within its pages or visit affiliated sites. Your ISP knows who you are and where you live or work whenever you get online.

This tracking continues far from your computer. The hundreds of publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras within a 10-block radius of my office capture my image when I buy a falafel or read a book in Washington Square Park. If you talk on a cell phone or send text messages from your PDA, your provider knows where you are. The same goes for when you pay for socks with a credit card or get cash from an ATM.

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As the battle to provide ads better-targeted to online consumers intensifies, our information becomes more valuable to online marketers and publishers. Web surfers also fear that identity thieves are on the prowl for their personal data. The government is a potential bogeyman, too: As fears over terrorism intensify, the feds may find your personal data irresistible. In 2003, Congress scuttled the Total Information Awareness program, which would have enabled the Pentagon to mine millions of public and private records to search for indications of terrorist activity. But that doesn't mean the effort to combine databases has stalled—it's just been redirected.

So, how can we protect ourselves? We're going to have to pay for it. In the same way we fork over a few extra bucks a month for caller ID block and an unlisted phone number, we'll pay for anonymity in other areas. Privacy has become a commodity. The more our personal information gets out there, and the more valuable it becomes, the more incentive there will be for companies to shield it on our behalf.

There's a good chance you already have a personal firewall or a spyware remover installed on your machine. But there are loads of other products that can do everything from masking your IP address—kind of like driving in a car with a fake license plate—to scrambling your data so that anyone trying to intercept it will encounter gibberish, to services that claim to expunge your personal information from a whole range of databases and search engines. Some do what they say they can do. Others don't.

For $29.99, Acronis Privacy Expert Suite will wipe your hard drive of all traces of Web surfing. Anonymizer.com offers an array of products that do everything from masking your identity by routing your Web traffic through secure servers to encrypting your wireless connection. GhostSurf, a competing product, provides "an anonymous, encrypted Internet connection" that erases any trace of your surfing "to Department of Defense standards." Encryption schemes like PGP will let you send e-mail securely so that even if hackers intercept it upstream, they won't be able to read it. A program called SafeHouse will fully encrypt your hard drive to ensure that if your laptop is stolen, your data won't be.

Not everything that comes at a price can do the job. A new service called DeleteNow vows to expunge your personal information from search engines, databases, and directories for $2.99 a month. The company says it uses searchbots and a "deletion module" to search for and destroy information in databases and on the Web that its client doesn't want dispersed in the ether. But DeleteNow's claims are a bit exaggerated. It can't simply delete information from third-party Web sites—all it does is automate the process by which any user can ask that a page gets removed from a particular search engine. Believe me: If Google didn't remove its CEO Eric Schmidt's personal information from search results after the company raised a stink with CNET, it's not going to remove yours.

Not all privacy enhancers cost money. Some free Web-based services help those who simply want to control their information because they don't want "The Man" to have it—marketers, the government, whoever. Bugmenot offers communal logins and passwords—the password "liberalmedia" for the New York Times and the e-mail nypostisfuckingretartedforrquiringregistration@suckme.com to access the New York Post, for example—that allow users to avoid providing personal information at sites that require free (but annoying) registration. But the model that Hushmail, which offers snoop-proof e-mail, has adopted will probably hold sway in the future. The company gets you in the door by offering free e-mail accounts but then offers a number of different services that cost money.

Of course, it's possible that these services go too far. Do most of us really need to encrypt our hard drives so that pictures of our kids don't fall into enemy hands? The most important question, though, is whether it's right that individuals have to bear the economic burden of protecting their anonymity online. Shouldn't our own personal default settings be set on privacy?

Perhaps, but consider that the free flow of information online lowers the cost of doing business. It makes it easier and more cost-effective for marketers to find us and for publications to target ads based on our interests, which lowers prices for everyone. Those who opt out of receiving cookies, for example, are altering what has become the natural state of the Internet. Just like you don't assume you'll be anonymous when you walk down the street, you shouldn't assume you will be in cyberspace. No one would expect to get a funny-looking hat and a pair of dark sunglasses for free. You shouldn't expect to get the digital equivalent without paying for it, either.

Adam L. Penenberg is an assistant professor at New York University and assistant director of the business and economic reporting program in the school's department of journalism. You can email him at penenberg@yahoo.com.