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Net tools store info but stir concerns

New products aim to give Net users more control over their personal information online, but consumer advocates warn that such programs do not always protect users' privacy.

A slew of products introduced this week aim to give Net users more control over their personal information online, but consumer advocates warn that such programs do not always protect users' privacy and could wind up helping corporations collect even more data about customers.

"There is a difference between technologies which enhance anonymity versus those that ask people to provide more private information to marketers," said Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, a clearinghouse for privacy-protection measures.

The new services range from those that allow people to use pseudonyms when they register at news or entertainment sites to "profiling" programs that speed up online shopping by eliminating the need to retype payment information every time a purchase is made.

This week, Novell unveiled Digitalme, which lets Net users create various personal profiles, with home or business information, for example. The profiles can be used to automatically fill in Web registration forms and are stored by Digitalme so they can be accessed by users from any computer.

Lucent Technologies unveiled ProxyMate, which also lets people automatically fill in online registration forms using their true identities or aliases.

And next month, Zero-Knowledge Systems will launch Freedom, which will let users create pseudonyms to surf the Web, send email, post to newsgroups, and chat.

What consumers give up
These products are emerging at a time when companies are gaining unprecedented access to private information about consumers.

In exchange for goods and services, online customers are routinely asked to hand over their names, ages, home addresses, incomes, credit card numbers, and details about their shopping habits. Many comply, adding to data repositories that make it possible for companies to build profiles of people, track their online activities with greater accuracy, and target them with Web advertising.

Privacy advocates, regulators, and the Net industry have long debated how to best protect online users' personal data, prompting the Clinton administration to plan a public workshop about online profiling, scheduled for November. Proposed solutions range from stronger laws to voluntary industry guidelines and the use of technological tools.

At Federal Trade Commission hearings more than two years ago, Netscape Communications and Microsoft first announced their intention to create an Open Profiling Standard (OPS)--an architecture intended to let surfers exchange private data more easily with Web sites to get custom content or to buy goods. The OPS was one of the first technologies to raise privacy group hackles.

Although Digitalme is not billed as a privacy protection product, it will store a plethora of information about Net users and help companies do the same. Privacy advocates say the product falls into the profiling tool category.

"There are no privacy enhancing features in Digitalme at all," Catlett said. "It is a mechanism for distributing personal information."

But Digitalme pledges that it will not view the data it stores or share it with third parties, and that it will delete profiles upon request.

"It helps the consumers better manage who they are giving their information to and to track it," said Paula Benassi, senior product manager for Digitalme. "But consumers also have to read sites' privacy policies to understand how the information will be used once they hand it over."

Total anonymity?
Zero-Knowledge, by contrast, touts its Freedom product as a privacy tool.

With Freedom, users' online activities are encrypted and routed through a globally distributed network of servers, which make it impossible to know where users are physically located or who they really are, according to Zero-Knowledge's founders.

And as the name implies, Zero-Knowledge has no idea of the true identity of its customers. People will buy $10 tokens and cash them in for pseudonyms, so their real identities are not linked to their Freedom identities and can't be traced by the company.

"With Zero-Knowledge, you don't have to trust anyone but yourself with your privacy because we don't have your data," said Austin Hill, the company's president. "If we get acquired tomorrow, or subpoenaed by law enforcement, we don't have anything to give them."

Lucent's ProxyMate product is not as extensive as Zero-Knowledge, but it also can be used to register for sites anonymously.

"When you go to a Web site that requires a username, password, and email address, you can type in [simple commands] that allow us to create an encrypted alias," said Bob Lee, director of Lucent new ventures group.

"This is useful to filter out spam and to not be tracked by Web sites," he added. "We collect just a username, password, and email to create an account, but we don't share this information with third parties or use it."

ProxyMate also is gaining praise from privacy groups.

"It will take some time and experimentation to develop methods that are robust, easy to use, and provide genuine privacy for consumers, but ProxyMate is one of several new services that are starting to move in the right direction," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Before Net users give away personal data or set up profiles, they should research technologies that allow them to be anonymous and always read companies' privacy policies, privacy groups say.

"The critical test will be whether in the end these techniques enhance privacy or extract privacy," Rotenberg said.