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Software makers see opportunity in privacy fears

A feverish concern over Net privacy invasions sparks a new niche for companies that promise to protect personal data mined online.

    A feverish concern over Net privacy invasions has sparked a new niche for companies that promise to protect personal data mined online.

    During the past several months, consumers have become more aware of the vast amount of information collected about them by advertising firms and other Web companies. Making matters worse, the profiles developed are rarely available for the targeted subjects to view, advocates say.

    In response to this problem, companies such as Tacit Knowledge Systems, based in Palo Alto, Calif., and AdSubtract.com, of Braintree, Mass., are touting services that allow people to control their own dossiers.

    Tacit's product, called Knowledge Mail, is geared toward large corporations to help employees locate experts within the organization. The software keeps profiles of staff members so that other employees in the company can easily find specialists when they need assistance. For example, a junior partner at a large law firm using the technology would be able to quickly reach attorneys who specialize in intellectual property instead of having to send a company-wide email for help.

    The product seems a little scary on its face because it profiles employees based on their most private writings: outgoing email and other closely held documents.

    But Tacit vows that only the employee can release or control the information, which is stored in an encrypted format and can't be accessed without a password.

    "We understand that for targeted messages to be useful, they have to be intimate, and if it has to be intimate, it has to be private and controlled by the subject of the profile," said David Gilmour, Tacit Knowledge's chief executive. He added that if a person doesn't want personal data made available to the company, the profile is kept private.

    "It's not a way to spy on you," Gilmour said. "It's a way for you to keep your ear to the ground and selectively tune in."

    The technology costs businesses about $400 per profile.

    AdSubtract, another software company, blocks advertisements and unique computer identifiers, called cookies, that are used to track consumers' habits online whether they're shopping or just surfing the Net.

    This week, the company unveiled a product called AdSubtractPRO, which provides additional filtering to prevent pop-up windows, animation, music Javascript and background images from reaching the Web surfer.

    Fears over privacy peaked earlier this year when online ad firm DoubleClick quietly decided to marry anonymous Net consumer information to names and addresses culled by Abacus Direct, a large catalog company it merged with in November.

    News of the plan touched off a storm of controversy, forcing DoubleClick to put its plans on hold. The firm was hit with several lawsuits and an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission. A lawsuit brought by Michigan's attorney general is still in settlement negotiations. PricewaterhouseCoopers also is conducting a privacy audit of the company.

    The backlash prompted New York-based DoubleClick to launch a privacy education campaign, although consumer advocates said in February that the initiative didn't go far enough.

    The ad company said today that it plans to expand the campaign, PrivacyChoices, to serve 100 million ad impressions with its so-called educational messages, doubling the original goal of 50 million impressions.

    The company also has hired Jules Polonetsky, New York City's former consumer affairs commissioner, as its chief privacy officer and has named ex-New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams as chairman of the newly established privacy advisory board.