COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Safe surfing

If you're like me, you'd rather not have something new to worry about. But as much as we'd like to avoid thinking about computer security issues, they are real and they are becoming more serious.

We are open to all sorts of vulnerabilities once we go online using the Internet and e-mail. Thousands of companies are silently and efficiently gathering personal information from our computers, prowling through our hard drives, looking for sites we've visited and leaving files. When we surf, we leave trails of personal information on other sites, from information that can identify our computer to names and e-mail addresses.

Some of this can be helpful, such as storing information on our hard drive that eliminates the need to sign in each time to our favorite sites. But we pay dearly for this convenience by becoming targets of aggressive online advertising companies that are driven by profit at the expense of invading our privacy. For example, you may go to a popular medical site and search for information on a foot ointment and end up on a mailing list for AIDS patients because the medication has a dual use. Additionally, your privacy is at stake in other, more serious ways. Sending an anonymous tip to a law enforcement agency or a newspaper is virtually impossible as your identity can be easily determined.

The newest privacy threat is something called spyware, which is installed on our computers without our knowledge. These programs collect data about us through our Web-surfing habits and then send this information back to the owners of the spyware who can then target us more effectively. I recently downloaded a free music program and, without asking for permission, it installed another program on my computer that created new pop-up ads when I went online, matching my interests to their clients' products. I tried to remove the program using the Windows Add/Remove tool, but it kept reinstalling itself until I removed the music program. Being connected to an always-on connection such as a cable modem or DSL is especially risky because the computer is always accessible when it is on. Sort of like leaving all of the doors in your home open.

Fortunately, there are companies working on our behalf to counter these threats. One is San Diego-based Anonymizer Inc. (www.anonymizer.com), a Mission Valley company of 26 employees that has developed a series of products that have been highly rated and in wide use by individuals, enterprises and the government.

Founded in 1996 by Lance Cottrell, an astrophysicist and president of Anonymizer, the company is privately funded and profitable.

According to Bill Unrue, Anonymizer's CEO, there are three types of threats to online computing: viruses, unauthorized intrusions and loss of privacy. Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com), and McAfee VirusScan (www.mcafee.com) address virus protection, ZoneLabs (www.zonelabs.com) and Check Point (www.checkpoint.com) provide firewall protection against unauthorized intrusions, and Anonymizer protects our privacy.

Its core product, Private Surfing 2.1, allows us to go online anonymously. By accessing the Internet through their servers, our identity is protected from the sites we visit. These sites think Anonymizer, not us, is visiting them. It works by sending our Web requests through their servers and rewriting the Web pages, filtering out potential threats like cookies, Web bugs and mobile code while shielding us from identification and online tracking. If there are sites that you trust and want to provide your identity, such as Amazon, you can turn the software off with a single click of a button installed on the Explorer toolbar.

It should be noted that there are always trade-offs for protecting privacy; some Web sites may not work as designed because they use technology that can be used to plant tracking Web-bugs or tracking scripts on your computer (JavaScript, Flash, VB script and ActiveX for example). Bill Unrue points out that because Anonymizer's service is used by law enforcement and human rights organizations, they have built in the highest level of privacy and security by not allowing some sites to be completely rendered on your PC, impacting a relatively small portion of the Internet sites. Clicking off the software allows immediate access to these sites, but you've been warned.

Anonymizer has also introduced a new online service, www.SECtips.com, which empowers employees to anonymously report concerns, information and possible violations of accounting activities within their company in accordance with provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The service lets companies customize their Web sites to allow workers to confidentially report irregularities. Anonymizer's secure servers, which process the tips, protect their anonymity.

"In today's corporate climate and in the wake of numerous high-profile scandals such as Enron, it is critical for companies to make it easy and safe for employees to report tips without the threat of retaliation, demotion or firing," said Lance Cottrell in a recent interview.

Their technology has other broad areas of applications as well. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the company provided the FBI with a Web site to allow people to anonymously provide tips without fear of repercussions. Some government agencies are using this technology to allow news to get past the Internet filtering being done in countries such as China that restrict their citizen's access to popular Western Web site news sources.

The battle between those that want to access our personal information and those that offer products to protect us is an ongoing one. Each side is constantly revising their techniques to keep up with the other. We can fight back by equipping ourselves with the latest tools to keep our surfing safe and secure -- products like Anonymizer, Norton AntiVirus and Zone Alarm.


Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He also has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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