Who hasn't bought something online, only to receive a torrent of marketing spam that follows you around like a rabid puppy?
Abine's new MaskMe browser add-on and mobile app, debuting Monday, ensure that you can use the Web while avoiding the data stalkers by preventing you from giving out your contact info in the first place.
MaskMe is a freemium add-on for Firefox (download for Windows | download for Mac) and Chrome (download for Windows | download for Mac) that creates and manages dummy accounts for your e-mail address, phone number, credit card, and Web site log-ins. Upgrading gets you some impressive extra features, not the least of which are an Android and iOS app that have some features specifically designed to keep you from over-sharing on your phone.
Upgrading to the freemium version costs $5 per month.
Abine's argument for MaskMe is that individuals are always on the losing end of the data-for-service exchange, and corporations always win. To put it in the current geopolitical context, while it was shocking to learn the extent of the National Security Agency's spying on U.S. citizens, it was equally disturbing that the companies complicit in the NSA's tactics had kept all the data the government needed to track their customers in the first place.
"The real lesson is, 'Stop: Don't give out your personal information,'" said Sarah Downey, a privacy advocate at Abine. "Consumers have to assume that any information that a company has can be lost, shared, sold, stolen, and used in a potentially long list of other ways that were never intended."
Abine's not new to the intersection of browser add-ons and privacy. The company's free DoNotTrackMe is a robust offering that bulks up the idea of DoNotTrack without the political jockeying between browser vendors and advertisers.
When you hear of massive data breaches, such as the 50 million compromised LivingSocial accounts or that all e-mails, usernames, and passwords were stolen from the Ubuntu Forums, the data that gets stolen doesn't affect the company hosting the information. It's your account and your online identity that are at risk.
All of that is prelude to what MaskMe does, which is actually quite simple. It prevents you from sharing your personal information while allowing you to continue to communicate and buy things online.
How MaskMe works MaskMe is one of the most vigorous attempts so far to protect people's identities, and in a week of testing, it appears to be nearly flawless. It's fast, and remarkably added little time to my Web routines once setup.
The setup process, too, was simple. Mistakes I made were clearly flagged, and possible solutions were offered.
It protects your e-mail address, phone number, and credit card by recognizing Web forms that ask for your info, and then offers to create disposable versions of that data that forward on to your real accounts. If you've already used it once on a specific site, it remembers that "fake" account information.
The basic free version of MaskMe gets you unlimited masked e-mail accounts, the autofill and auto-generate features, Web site account creation to simplify the process of not using Facebook Connect or Google log-in, and online backup.
Upgrading to the premium version unlocks a masked phone number, masked credit card, and synchronization.
The Android and iOS apps are similar, but not all of the features in the iOS app have been ported to the Android one. The Android app currently lacks masked phone number and credit cards, and dialing out from your masked number.
A masked e-mail forwards missives to your real e-mail, and a masked phone number forwards calls, voicemail, and texts to your real phone. But the credit card wouldn't work properly if it just forwarded all charges to the real card.
Abine's work-around is remarkably clever: it generates a temporary credit card number that's good only for the amount you want to pay. Some situations are likely to cause complications, such as what happens when you have to be refunded the sum, but it comes with other benefits. You can give someone a "gift card" for a particular sum, without having to worry about whether they prefer Amazon or iTunes.
Other features in MaskMe indicate that a lot of thought went into how this thing works in real-world scenarios. The passwords it generates are encrypted, making it harder for machines to guess them. When a spammer starts mail-bombing a masked e-mail, you can block that account from receiving spam from directly within the e-mail.
The masked phone features provide you with a second phone number, from which you can block individual numbers with one tap. The iOS app lets you call people from your masked number, and that feature is due soon in the Android counterpart.
Of course, all of this means that to get MaskMe to work you have to create an account with MaskMe that will store your real personal information. Abine has taken some aggressive steps to ensure that your data won't be compromised, including using AES-256 encryption "with row-level salts for extra-sensitive info, data minimization, and host-proof hosting," according to the MaskMe documentation. Downey explained that Abine employees do not have access to user passwords or encryption keys.
One major drawback of MaskMe is that it doesn't let you synchronize existing account information. For some, that may be liberating to not have to worry about previous Web accounts. But for me, there was no easy solution for integrating my pre-existing Web life with MaskMe's more protective stance.
You can add accounts one at a time, if you change the option in Settings under Logins to "Store all my accounts." But that's still a piecemeal method of adding what easily could be hundreds of accounts.
Abine has high hopes for MaskMe. The beta test attracted thousands of people, according to Downey, and resulted in a lengthy waiting list. It's also hitting the street just as public concern about online privacy is at an all-time high.
MaskMe could well lead to a big shake-up in the privacy and security marketplace. It's fast, it's multi-platform, it's effective, and you get a lot for a low price. Whether or not you think the NSA is spying on you this very minute, MaskMe is one privacy protection tool that everybody should check out.