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Software maker offers privacy testing

Zero-Knowledge Systems unveils a free beta service that lets companies test whether their Web sites comply with a privacy standard known as P3P.

Security software maker Zero-Knowledge Systems on Tuesday introduced a Web-based tool that lets online businesses evaluate their digital privacy policies.

The Montreal-based company's P3P Analyzer, a free beta service, lets companies test whether their Web sites comply with a privacy standard known as Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) and its implementation in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6.

The company plans to offer the tool free for 90 days; after that, it expects to charge a yet-to-be-determined fee for the service.

The move comes nearly four months after Zero-Knowledge's business took a U-turn. The company closed its flagship anonymity network in early October, saying it was unable to change enough free subscribers into paying customers, and it began to focus on security software for home computer users.

The new P3P tool comes at a time when companies are increasingly challenged by the complexity of online privacy. P3P, recently implemented in IE 6, aims to give Web surfers more control over electronic markers known as cookies, which can be used to peek into individuals' online activities. For Web sites to work in IE 6, they must create digital versions of their privacy policies that can be read by the browser electronically.

Privacy experts say that by compressing crucial information such as company standards into a compact file, much is at risk, including the legal forte around the company's practices.

"It's already hard enough to write a privacy policy in English, let alone a computer language, which is what P3P is," said Richard Smith, a computer security and privacy expert. "You're stating various policies, and if you don't get it right, then you're opening yourself up to legal action."

Zero-Knowledge's P3P Analyzer lets chief privacy officers use a Web address to analyze, monitor and report on implementation of P3P throughout the site. The tool also reports on whether the site is compliant with default privacy settings in IE 6 and produces a comparative report with rival sites.

"Half the problem with P3P is understanding what it is," said John Beans, vice president of product marketing for enterprise products at Zero-Knowledge. Companies are having to wrestle with P3P on their Web sites, and this helps them assess what it is and whether they're compliant with it."

The company also recently entered the enterprise market to perform many of the same tasks. In January, Zero-Knowledge introduced its Enterprise Privacy Manager, software that lets companies put disparate privacy policies into digital formats and check companywide practices against stated policies.

Meanwhile, in its consumer business, Zero-Knowledge partnered with computer heavyweight Hewlett-Packard earlier this year. HP is equipping its Pavilion desktop PCs sold in North America with Zero-Knowledge's security and privacy tools. They include Internet ad blocking, passwords and cookie managers, among others.