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Random auto-browser keeps Web trackers at bay

The free AntiPhorm Lite program conducts random Web sessions in an attempt to confound behavioral ad networks and other Web spies.

I can't say for certain that ISPs, online advertising networks, and other big Web companies are already tracking our Web use and sending us ads and other information based on conclusions they draw from our unique browsing history.

But it wouldn't surprise me one bit if they were. And if they aren't already, I know it's only a matter of time.

Web sites have been using persistent cookies to remember you from session to session for a long time. Usually, sites know only the site you arrived from and the site you go to when you leave.

ISPs and other organizations use deep packet inspection and other techniques to keep a history of your browsing. They claim the browsing histories are anonymous. But when your privacy is at stake, it doesn't pay to trust any commercial operation to do what's in your best interest rather than what will make them the most money.

You can take various steps to thwart the efforts of Web spies, including using products and services that promise anonymous surfing. This week, a group of "programmers, artists, and designers" posted the full release of a program called AntiPhorm Lite, which attempts to obfuscate your browsing tracks by visiting sites at random. The make-believe browsing renders the collection of your Web history meaningless from the trackers' perspective.

AntiPhorm's text-only console
The AntiPhorm random browser is intended to prevent Web trackers from knowing what you're up to online. AntiPhorm

That's the theory, at least. The program's creators claim it is safe to use and consumes very little processing or bandwidth because it examines only the HTML of the sites it visits, so no images, videos, Javascript, or Flash are ever downloaded when the program runs in its hidden or text-only console view. (Note that in hidden view, the only way to deactivate the program short of shutting down your PC is to open Task Manager and kill its process.)

The program's name is derived from the Phorm behavioral advertising company that recently entered into an agreement with the U.K. ISPs Virgin Media, BT, and TalkTalk to tap into their customers' browsing history. As you can imagine, the plan has met with resistance from privacy advocates.

AntiPhorm also features a console view that lets you see the random sites the program opens. When I tried this mode, AntiPhorm opened a new Firefox tab every 20 or so seconds. My imaginary personality jumped from IT sites to Yahoo's search page to Amazon to IMDB back to Amazon, then over to eBay, back to Amazon, and 'round and 'round.

It was a little disconcerting to see the "Welcome, Dennis!" greeting when an Amazon page opened, and the program would've kept opening two or three new sites a minute if left unattended. The designers promise that AntiPhorm won't visit any potentially embarrassing sites, but I quickly switched back to the program's text-only mode, which merely lists the sites it is visiting.

What do you gain by using a program such as AntiPhorm to make your Web activities more difficult to track? Individually, probably not much, especially if you don't care what ads the online networks serve up when you browse. Collectively, you might play a small role in preserving the privacy of everyone's browsing history by making behavioral advertising less profitable.

That's the theory, anyway.