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Privacy audit can keep secret

Electronic agent service hired Coopers & Lybrand to certify its sincerity in protecting user privacy.

In a move applauded by advocates of online privacy, makers of an electronic agent service called Firefly Online today hired Coopers & Lybrand to audit their service and certify to users that the company is protecting their privacy.

Agents is the parent company for Firefly Online, a service that provides a personal agent that scans public networks looking for information based on your personal profile. The service also allows users to have anonymous online conversations with similar interests and give feedback to marketers and advertisers.

To ensure the security of personal information provided by Firefly users, Agents hired Coopers & Lybrand to regularly audit the company's services. The firm will ensure that Firefly doesn't keep names and addresses in its records, disclose email addresses without permission, retain transcripts of online conversations between Firefly members, or read or release email exchanged between members.

Firefly already employs such security measures as a network firewall, log-in encryption, and user anonymity to help ensure privacy. It also partnered today with VeriSign to offer its members VeriSign Digital IDs, or electronic passports to prove their identity online.

"The Web is expanding at a frightening pace, and we want our members to feel safe and know what will and won't happen to them when they use our service," said Saul Klein, Firefly's vice president of marketing. "We're growing a large community online, including members outside of the United States, and that's why we've taken this step."

The move is being promoted as a good example of how to deal with online privacy by ETrust, a nonprofit group of Internet and electronic commerce companies whose goal is to provide privacy and security online.

"Firefly is a good pilot for the implementation of proactive consumer protection policies on the Internet, and we're working together with them and their auditors to test out how this works on a single site. We plan to roll that over to the ETrust program," said Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the ETrust's founders. "What we're trying to emphasize through the program is that private information will never be released to a third party without your consent."

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