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Companies showcase gadgets, software for online safety

A handful of software companies are ringing online privacy bells as the holiday season approaches, urging consumers to give themselves the gift of Internet anonymity.

BERKELEY, Calif.--A handful of software companies are ringing online privacy bells as the holiday season approaches, urging consumers to give themselves the gift of Internet anonymity before venturing online to shop.

Privacy companies were out in force Monday night for a mini tech fair at the University of California at Berkeley, showcasing wares that included self-destructing email, pseudonym makers and data scramblers to protect credit card information.

Although hopes run high that consumers will gravitate to such products, enthusiasm was tempered by skepticism among the 75 or so attendees at the Berkeley show.

Many said they worried about online companies collecting dossiers on consumers, but few acknowledged that they have yet to take advantage of the technology available to shield themselves.

"Privacy is a hindsight concern," explained Jason Schultz, a former law student at Berkeley. "Right now I don't know what kind of embarrassing things I'm going to do in the future. But the struggle in general is (which products) are worth investing in."

Worries about online privacy focus on the common practice by online businesses of collecting personal information, such as names, addresses and Web sites visited or items bought on the Internet. The data is a gold mine for direct marketers interested in targeting consumers with advertisements that may appeal to their interests.

But sometimes information can get in the wrong hands, particularly if it is subpoenaed in a civil court matter, such as an employer suing an employee over discussions about the company in a chat room. Plus, aside from the annoying tracking and possible spamming that may result, many fear criminals can use personal data cultivated online for cyberstalking, identity theft and credit card fraud.

These worries have spawned a niche market for start-ups to come up with ways that make the consumer feel more comfortable online. A growing number of companies hope to cash in on consumer concerns over online data-gathering practices.

Among them are iPrivacy, a New York-based start-up backed with endorsements from prominent privacy advocates such as security expert Richard Smith and advocate Jason Catlett of Junkbusters.com. The company keeps consumer information confidential as people shop on the Web.

SafeWeb, based in Oakland, Calif., offers a free service for those seeking shelter from the online tracking capabilities of employers, marketers, Web sites and government agencies.

"This solves what I call little brother and big brother problems," said Jon Chun, president and co-founder of SafeWeb. "It blocks cookies, Web bugs, and dangerous JavaScript but also protects consumers from people like their boss, neighbor or co-worker" who may be snooping.

Chun said some 10 million consumers have signed up for his product since its launch Oct. 18.

Other companies that make identity protection products include Zero-Knowledge Systems, ZipLip, Anonymizer.com and Icogno.

For email, Disappearing Inc. lets people send sensitive emails that will evaporate after a period of time--from 30 minutes to 60 days--leaving no trace of its existence.

Just last week, Yahoo quietly introduced a way to send scrambled email. The service is possible through a deal with ZixIt, a Dallas-based email encryption company.

Zendit of Seattle, Wash., will launch its encryption products next month, allowing consumers to surf the Web without revealing who they are.

At least some people at the fair Monday night said they were skeptical that any one product could provide the answer to the privacy scare.

"They're all good ideas and good starts," said biology student Sofia Hussain, 23. "But each one only solves part of the problem. It's like this: If you build a wall that's 100 feet high but sections of it are only 2 feet high, you're not going to stop people from climbing that wall."

Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said he doubts that technology alone will cure privacy breaches.

"The last thing we need is a greater flood of technology people don't understand," he said. "Most people aren't going to bother; they don't have the technical expertise."

Ex-law student Schultz noted that trusting a third party with personal data can also backfire. What if, he asked, the company offering privacy tools goes bankrupt and tries to claim customer data as an asset?

Schultz's fear is founded in recent developments involving Toysmart.com, an online toy retailer that drew heavy criticism when it tried to claim names and information of 250,000 customers as assets in a bankruptcy filing.

Yet it's cases such as Toysmart's that will prompt more people to go beyond worrying about privacy online and take steps to protect themselves, Schultz said.

"The more I hear, the more I get worried," he said. "But before I invest in any of these products, I want to see someone take it to the mat. I want to see it survive a subpoena."