SafeWeb, based in Berkeley, Calif., launched its free service Wednesday for visitors seeking shelter from the tracking capabilities of employers, online marketers, Web sites and the government.
Typically, Web sites can pinpoint where consumers are coming from through an Internet Protocol address, or identifier, on their computer. They can track how often the consumer visits a site, which sites he or she visited previously, and often, specific actions that were performed, such as shopping.
SafeWeb blocks such "data exhaust," using a technique called IP masking, to let consumers surf Web sites without being monitored. Consumers can log on to the site and type a Web address from within SafeWeb's browser. It will then launch another secure browser with the designated site, giving the consumer privacy from that point on.
However, if a consumer using SafeWeb fills out a form that requires personal information, that information is recorded the same as if a person were using a generic browser.
"Our server acts as a middleman for you, and this middleman speaks to your computer in a code that no one else understands," said Stephen Hsu, SafeWeb's chief executive. "Anybody monitoring you through SafeWeb will be stymied.
"The Web site can't see who you are, and your company can't see what sites you're visiting. All they will capture is encrypted packets of information," he said.
However, IP masking can be a moot technology for some Web surfers who use services such as America Online. When AOL users visit the Web, for example, they all appear to come from the same place on AOL servers, rather than having a unique identifier. This can also be the case for an employer's computer system.
A slew of other programs have been introduced in the past year to do the same.
iPrivacy, which launched last month with prominent endorsers such as privacy expert Richard Smith, is a start-up that keeps consumer information confidential while people shop the Web. Freedom, from Zero-Knowledge Systems, Anonymizer.com and Proxymate.com are other products that aim to keep personal information under wraps online.
The market for such technology has exploded in the past year because of rising concern about profiling practices on the Web. Internet companies have also bolstered their privacy policies, and in some cases they have hired independent auditors to ensure that their statements are meeting current industry standards.
But consumers new to the Web have yet to learn how to protect their privacy online, let alone know that it is at stake. One of the pitfalls of the technology available today is that many consumers think they lack the technical savvy to download software and make it work, privacy advocates say. In addition, having to pay for such services can be a deterrent.
SafeWeb is betting that its easy-to-use service will attract Internet newbies--and advertisers. The company plans to make money by selling ads on its browser, targeting consumers in real time without storing or tracking their behavior. For example, if an anonymous surfer is visiting a car site, he might see an ad for a Volkswagen.
The software also blocks so-called cookies that are set by online profilers for tracking purposes. It will, however, allow the use of electronic tags if used for the purpose of remembering a password or personal preferences.
SafeWeb also lets consumers personalize their privacy settings and will notify Web surfers which sites have been trying to place cookies on their computers.
The company has raised nearly $8 million from New York investment groups Kingdon Capital Management and Chilton Partners.