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The Price of Privacy
By Jon Gordon
August 2, 1999
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As surfing the web grows more popular, people are discovering there can be downsides; one is the loss of privacy. Now, a Canadian company thinks it has a solution. Zero Knowledge Systems is preparing to sell a product that will let you surf the web and send email anonymously. The software, called "Freedom," is the first of its kind designed for average computer users.

Privacy advocates say it has great potential, but it could complicate electronic commerce, and make criminals harder to catch.

ADAM LEE IS A 19-YEAR-OLD computer programmer for Cyrus, a Minneapolis software company. He's one of thousands of beta testers for Freedom, a program that creates pseudonyms for web surfing, email, and chat rooms. Lee says he doesn't have anything to hide, he's just trying to keep marketers at bay.
Lee: I guess I don't have anything I want to keep secret, I just don't want demographics stored about me indefinitely. Just any average user doesn't realize how much data is gathered by companies who are tracking the way they spend their money, the way they surf web sites. It's just kind of scary that that much data can collected about you.
Freedom uses a combination of technologies to ensure anonymity, including encryption, a method of scrambling data to make it unreadable to people without a key to decode it.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to be anonymous on the Internet. For example, you might want to investigate sensitive health issues without revealing your own condition. Or maybe you'd like to participate in a political discussion without fear of repercussions. Jason Catlett of Junkbusters, a firm that promotes Internet privacy, says there's another good reason.
Catlett: Imagine if you walked into K-Mart, the greeter said instead of "Welcome to K-Mart," "Why don't you give me your credit card number now in case you want to buy something?" That would be unreasonable . The consumer should be anonymous until the point they want to make a transaction.
The Internet economy depends in part on merchants knowing personal data: your name and address, credit card numbers, and buying habits. You can surf anonymously, but if you want to buy a CD at, you're going to have to cough up personal information.

So what would happen if anonymous surfing caught on? Some people argue it could derail the progress of electronic commerce. Andy Sernovitz is president emeritus of AIM, the Association for Internet Marketing, which promotes electronic commerce. Sernovitz says products like Freedom are both good and bad for e-commerce.
Sernovitz: When people feel anonymous and feel their privacy is protected, they surf more, they buy more, they do more things, when people are genuinely able to protect their identity. On the flip side of that, so many of the benefits of the Internet are tied to this ability to personalize things for your own individual use It's privacy versus personalization. If you want to be anonymous, you're going to get generic services. If you're willing to give out some information about yourself, you're going to get more of what you want, delivered how you want it, directly to you.
Zero Knowledge says future versions of Freedom might include the ability to buy goods anonymously, through technologies like electronic cash. For now, though, Freedom is mostly for social interaction on the Internet.

But Internet anonymity could also create a cover for all manner of crimes. Phil Reitinger is a prosecutor for the computer crimes and intellectual property division at the United States Department of Justice.
Reitinger: If you can't trace communications on the Internet, you can't determine who's responsible. And that means you can't bring criminal prosecutions for criminal conduct. That's going to be a growing problem as our society moves more and more to doing ordinary activities on the Internet rather than in the physical world. We're going to find that it's easier to commit a wide variety of crimes that cannot then be prosecuted because of untraceable anonymity.
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Jon Gordon covers new technology issues for Minnesota Public Radio. To provide feedback on this story, please email
There are other methods for disguising email and web surfing; but, unlike Freedom, they don't live on your own computer. So-called anonymous remailers and worldwide-web anonymizers are controlled by third parties, and the identity of people who use these services can be revealed by subpoena.

Zero Knowledge System claims to be subpoena-proof. The company admits Freedom will almost certainly be used for nefarious activities. But CEO Austin Hill says that's a small price to pay.
Hill: I believe that as a society, the right to be private, the right to control your information, and the benefits of being able to raise contentious speech, or be different without fear of the social pressures of conformity, I think it's ultimately a benefit.
Internet anonymity could face a legal challenge. Michael Froomkin , a law professor at the University of Miami, says all it will take is for Freedom to be used to commit a bad crime, like unleashing a destructive computer virus.
Froomkin: I do anticipate there will be a test case sometime in the reasonable future, because what usually happens is whenever a new tool is built, I don't care if it's a car or a gun or anything else, someone finds a way to do something awful with it. And then you get a test case. Usually with very ugly facts. And usually those test cases produce calls for legislation.
It remains to be seen whether computer programs that protect the anonymity of web surfers will slow the ongoing assault on privacy. But one thing seems certain: as more people realize the extent to which the Internet is eroding their privacy, many will be looking for a way to reclaim what they're losing.