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These agents keep no secrets

The agents are coming, and they're here to help you. So say three software vendors that are rolling out new "intelligent agents" that can scour the Internet unattended.

The agents are coming, and they're here to help you.

So claim three software vendors that are rolling out new "intelligent agents" that can scour the Internet, finding relevant documents for users even when they aren't sitting at their computers.

One looks for news or general information, another finds Web content that might interest a user, and the third is licensing the technology now used on the Firefly Network's Web site to others that want to create their own agents.

Autonomy's two intelligent agents, Autonomy Web Researcher and Autonomy Press Agent, search for general information and check news sites based on a user's input.

Andersen Consulting's LifestyleFinder asks users for information to infer consumer interests and buying preferences, then uses that data to suggest Web sites featuring products, places, or services they might like. The same information, but not the identity of users, would be shared with marketers who would then send appropriate advertising.

Firefly Network, which just changed its name from Agents Incorporated, is licensing technology used on its music and movies site to others, initially Reuters NewMedia, Rolling Stone magazine, Yahoo, and ZDNet.

Firefly will aggregate one person's preferences, as indicated at any site within its "network" of Web publishers that use Firefly's agent technology, and use that data to suggest interesting content to the user and to send that individual appropriate advertising.

Both Firefly and Andersen insist that the privacy and identity of anyone who uses their agent will be respected and not disclosed to any advertiser, but privacy concerns are sure to emerge as a significant issue on the oft-anonymous Net. Those concerns may not apply to Autonomy's search agents, however, because information is not shared with anyone but the user.

"The purpose of LifestyleFinder is to test a new methodology for collecting information about consumers while respecting their privacy," Glover Ferguson, director of Andersen Consulting's Center for Strategic Technology Research, said in a statement.

Andersen and Firefly contend that online businesses need to target advertising to the right customers on the Web.

Last year, Andersen released BargainFinder, an intelligent agent that allows users to compare prices among eight CD sources offered on the Internet. But BargainFinder ran into obstacles when some of those Web retailers blocked the BargainFinder agent, apparently because they didn't want to compete on price with other CD outlets.

Beta versions of Autonomy's agents, which can search Web sites, email or corporate intranets, are now available for free trial download from Autonomy's Web site. Final versions are due online in October for Microsoft Windows and can use direct or dial-up Internet access. Autonomy's parent company is Cambridge Neurodynamics.

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