RealTime IT News

Privada: Bringing Privacy Back To Web Users

Microsoft's recent Hotmail melt-down and the earlier flap over Amazon.Com's release of purchasing circles information have propelled Net privacy -- and especially its glaring lack -- into the headlines yet again.

But what's bad news for Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon.com (AMZN) is good news for companies such as San Jose-based Privada, which offers anonymous Web surfing for individuals and server software for ISPs and other e-mail providers who want to offer truly anonymous e-mail to their users.

While the anonymity market is current a small one -- IDC and Forrester estimate it will be worth $650 million by 2001 -- Privada has raised $1.8 million in two rounds of financing from angel investors to launch their first two products: Web Incognito and Messaging Incognito.

The Web Incognito product is a $5 per month premium service that consists of free Java-based client software, PrivadaProxy, which users install on their PCs and allows them to interface with Privada's web server.

Privada says that using their system prevents the disclosure of their ISP's IP address, their browser data and other personal information -- something that can be found at free proxy server systems such as Anonymizer. But proxy servers have a serious problem because not only are many of them less anonymous than they seem, but they also cannot handle cookies -- a prerequisite for accessing an increasing number of sites and for eliminating the hassles of repeatedly entering user names and passwords.

To address this, Privada stores a user's cookies on its own server, in a cookie file that is associated with an anonymous user account. Because they are not stored on a user's machine, Privada allows access to the cookie files from any computer on which PrivadaProxy is installed. In addition, users can easily see all the cookies that are associated with their online identities and can choose to block or unblock these as they choose. Privada says that the only thing a remote server sees from its customers is the Privada server's IP address.

Messaging Incognito is Privada's enterprise software targeted at ISPs, Internet Portals and e-mail providers who want to offer web-based anonymous e-mail services. The server license costs in the neighborhood of $25,000 for installation and annual license fees based on the number of users supported.

The prime competitor to Messaging Incognito -- at least for consumers -- seems to be HushMail which takes the anonymity process a step further and adds message encryption to the mix -- something that is also offered at German company FreeMail but you'll need to sprechen sie Deutsche in order to avail yourself of that site.

The Privada web site offers a tantalizingly skimpy hint at their next product, Commerce Incognito, but Privada Founder, President and CEO Barnara Bellissimo wouldn't budge on details except to say that it would be a different product that that offered by PrivaSeek which offers a combination of one-click e-commerce purchasing and the ability to keep personal information private. Commerce Incognito, she said, would beta test this fall.

Anonymity is a double-edged sword for the Internet, allowing both untraceable hate-mail and enabling the messages of political dissidents (most notably the recent Kosovo Privacy Project) and whistleblowers. Indeed, the issue is such a hot topic that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held an invitational conference on the subject in November 1997. In papers published on the subject in January 1999, The AAAS weighed both sides of the issue and said that, "online anonymous communication is morally neutral"

A totally anonymous world is not without its potential downsides, especially in e-commerce where you are known by your cookies and may be treated accordingly. Jack Staff, Director and Chief Economist for Zona Research said that people who opt for anonymity after watching Enemy of the State one too many times might be treated by online shopkeepers in the same way they would if they walked into a bricks-and-mortar retailer with a black bag over their head.

"Anonymous is as anonymous does," Staff says borrowing from Forrest Gump. With the privacy field in its current early stages of development, he might as well have said that anonymity is like a box of chocolates -- and all that entails.


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