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New product guarantees online anonymity

Zero-Knowledge Systems unveils an online privacy tool to let Net users conceal their true identities.

Zero-Knowledge Systems will unveil an online privacy tool today to let Net users conceal their true identities.

And just like the company's name implies, it won't know who they are, either.

Under a limited release of 10,000 copies per week, Zero-Knowledge's Freedom allows users to create pseudonyms to surf the Web, register at sites, send email, post to newsgroups and chat. But online shoppers, who give up droves of personal information, probably won't use the current version of Freedom because most e-commerce sites rely on credit cards for payment and physical addresses to deliver products.

Many people who use the Net to express opinions, meet people, and collect articles and music think they are acting anonymously. But the fact is that their Internet service providers can keep track of them, as can Web sites that employ technologies such as cookies.

Moreover, online consumers are routinely asked to hand over their names, ages, home addresses, incomes, credit card numbers and details about their shopping habits. Many comply, adding to data repositories that make it possible for companies to build profiles of people, track their online activities with greater accuracy, and target them with Web advertising.

But for those who want to troll the Net incognito, Montreal, Canada-based Zero-Knowledge is about to offer one of the most advanced privacy protection tools.

Most products on the market today, such as tools offered by Enonymous and Novell's Digitalme, are personal-information managers that let Net users create various profiles with home or business information that can be used to automatically fill in Web registration forms. Lucent Technologies' ProxyMate also lets people fill in online forms using their true identities or aliases.

But with Freedom, users' online activities are encrypted and routed through a globally distributed network of servers that make it impossible to know where users are physically located or who they really are. To ensure that people's actual identities are not linked to their Freedom pseudonyms, they will buy $10 tokens and cash them in for "nyms." So all Zero-Knowledge ever knows about a person is that he or she purchased a token, according to the company.

"Zero-Knowledge has no data that can be used to compromise a user's privacy," said Austin Hill, the company's president.

Zero-Knowledge Systems, which has raised $14 million in venture capital, also won't be hindered by White House encryption export controls.

The U.S. rules require licenses for the strong encryption products, and the FBI is constantly lobbying for so-called key-recovery features that could give them access to a person's private key to unlock their encrypted data.

Law enforcement and powerful intellectual property owners--such as the record and music industries--don't want Net users to be completely anonymous because obviously, that makes them harder to bust if they are suspected of trafficking pirated material or committing other Net-based crimes.

"I'm not worried about it. We're not exporting or building encryption [from within] the United States," Hill said. "We took an active stance to educate law enforcement [such as] the Department of Justice. Generally the conversation is: 'Can you build in a backdoor?' and we say 'No.'"

If presented with a subpoena, however, Zero-Knowledge can shut off a pseudonym if it's being used to allegedly commit crimes.