Identity-Crisis Prevention

Just in time for online holiday shopping, Anonymizer issues updated software for protection against spyware and aggressive marketers.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

December 2, 2005

4 Min Read

Online shoppers now have tools to help them maintain their anonymity on the Web and protect themselves from cybercriminals and marketers hunting for personal information.

Just in time for the online holiday shopping season, Anonymizer Inc. last week introduced versions of its software products that let users surf the Web anonymously and protect their PCs from spyware. The company does this by creating secure tunnels between the Web and its customers' PCs, which shields users' IP addresses.

IP addresses, credit-card numbers, and other bits of information can be very valuable to marketing companies, which use that data to create a better picture of a person's preferences and buying habits. "If you've shopped online, it's likely your IP address has been correlated with your behavior," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonpartisan organization that researches and analyzes technology and privacy. "You leave digital cookie crumbs that create a very real trail wherever you go."

A user's IP address can give marketers and other online entrepreneurs, not to mention criminals, access to information about the type and version of Web browser on a user's PC, the PC's operating-system version, and even the user's general geographic location.

Anonymizer's Anonymous Surfing version 6.0 alerts users to spyware-infested sites before their browsers take them there. The software also can disable scripts running on malicious sites that download executable programs onto users' PCs. The software also is designed to prevent Web surfers from visiting known phishing and pharming sites. It does this by routing user Web-page requests through Anonymizer's Web-site directory rather than through the one hosted on the user's PC, which can become corrupted by malware and trick users into visiting fraudulent Web sites.

Spyware Shield
Anonymizer's Anti-Spyware version 3.0 features ActiveX Shield, which keeps Web-based software from being installed on users' PCs. This latest anti-spyware software also eliminates spyware that's already present, even in the Windows Registry and other areas where spyware tends to be particularly stubborn to delete.

Together, Anonymizer's latest software releases are designed to give an advantage to people who want their identities protected in the tug-of-war with marketers who want as much information from consumers as possible, says Lee Itzhaki, Anonymizer's director of product management.

While years of online eavesdropping have led to a virtual epidemic of E-mail spam, there are ways to cut down on the number of marketers looking to clutter consumers' in-boxes. The Federal Trade Commission last week released the results of a five-week study that concluded E-mail address masking is an effective way to reduce spam. During the course of the study, unmasked E-mail addresses received more than 6,400 spam messages, while only one spam message reached masked E-mail addresses. Also known as "munging," masking is the long-standing practice of altering an E-mail address so that it's readable by people but improperly formatted for machines.

For its study, the FTC established 50 test E-mail accounts at each of three separate Internet service providers; two used spam filters and one didn't. It also posted 50 E-mail addresses on various Web sites, chat rooms, message boards, Usenet groups, and blogs. The study also underscores the utility of ISP-based filtering. E-mail accounts at the ISP with no filter received 8,885 spam messages. The accounts at the ISPs that filtered received 1,208 spam messages (more than 86% blocked) and 422 spam messages (more than 95% blocked), respectively.

Dixon acknowledges that Web analytics and other online usage research can be valuable for sharpening marketing messages and improving Internet commerce. "It's fascinating to study how people interact with Web pages," she says. "But it's possible to do this without interfering with people's privacy."

-- with Thomas Claburn

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