Get Anonymized While Surfing The Net
"People who surf the Web feel as if they're doing it anonymously," says Justin Boyan over the telephone from his home in Pittsburgh. "I sort of wanted to debunk that." Boyan began the debunking process by creating a program to "ferret out as much information as I could about people on the Internet"; he discovered that you might unwittingly be transmitting everything from your computer's operating system to your e-mail address, just by visiting a site. And while that might be fine for the average Joe checking out baseball scores, it might not look good for, say, Jack Kemp to be recognized registering a hit at Bianca's Smut Shack (http://bianca.com/ shack). So Boyan came up with the Anonymizer, a surf-by-proxy program that allows users to travel about the Web without revealing details about their locations, computers and lives."Coming up with the concept, that was the easy part," he reflects now. "The hard part was making it easy to use."The Anonymizer works with any Internet browser, but it's particularly effective against the Netscape browser's "Persistent Client State HTTP Cookies," the unwieldy and rather silly way Netscape's designers, "for no particular reason," describe the browser's custom of tracking where you've been on the Web, dumping that information into a text file on your hard drive and making it available to whoever wants it ÷ mostly people who want to sell you stuff. (The file is called "cookies.txt," and if you have Netscape, you should view it regularly, just to see what rumors it's spreading.)Unlike with other proxy servers, you don't have to dig deep into your Netscape configuration to use the Anonymizer (you can if you want to, and if you know how, go ahead). You simply type http://www. anonymizer.com into the location line of Netscape and click on the button that says "Begin Surfing Anonymously." The Anonymizer then acts as a middleman -- Boyan likes the analogy of Caller ID blocking for the Internet -- stripping out every last trace of your identity as you search and surf. "Not only do we retrieve the page for you anonymously, but we rewrite that page so all the links [highlighted text that points to other pages] are updated by the Anonymizer as well. We intercept the source of the document and reprocess it."It might sound easy," he says. "But it isn't."Now a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, Boyan is the adult manifestation of "one of those kids who grew up playing with a color TRS-80" while his puzzled but supportive parents looked on. At 14, he wrote a modem communications program that sold around 4,000 registrations. Considering only 1 percent of all shareware users register their software, Boyan Communications was a startling success. "I made a good chunk of change," he admits. "It paid my way through college."Through luck or canny intuition, Boyan still has a knack for creating software mere moments before the computer-using world starts to need it. In the days since Boyan began developing the Anonymizer, Cookies has garnered enough outraged online gossip to rival both the Church of Scientology and AOL. But even Boyan admits that Netscape's Cookies habit isn't nearly as creepy as it seems.In fact, "Cookies have their good side," he says. "I don't want to come off as anti-Cookie." Sites such as My Yahoo, a useful information-retrieval tool for making the Web less vast and more personalized, uses your computer's Cookies file to keep track of your preferences. "Cookies get to be a problem," Boyan explains, "when marketers put their ads on lots of different sites, and those sites allow those advertisers to collect information on the user as well."My Yahoo, for the record, does not pass on information, Cookies-stored or user-provided, to advertisers, but another Web search engine, Lycos, does -- so when you access Lycos to search the Internet for, say, bomb-making material, Lycos logs that search and passes it on to every advertiser on its page. "Accessing a Web site becomes a matter of trust," says Boyan. "If you're looking at your stock quotes, or your banking information, or anything else you consider personal, you wouldn't want that information going to third parties."The thing is," he says, "you need to be able to choose how much information you want to pass along."Of course, as with all anonymous activity, anonymous surfing has its criminal potential. When I tried to download some export-restricted cryptography software from a certain FTP site and was inexplicably denied access, I used the Anonymizer to get around the site's location detection in an instant. Since the FTP site's host computer made a mistake -- I am, after all, in the United States I wasn't breaking the law. But under the cloak of the Anonymizer, I could have been surfing from Cuba, and importing software the U.S. Government still considers munitions."There's always a trade-off," Boyan reminds me, "between the Big Brother, crime-free state and a free country. And since the Internet serves all kinds of purposes, just like the telephone does, I'm sure there'll be new kinds of crimes." That said, Boyan acknowledges that the export problem is "maybe something the Anonymizer should consider."At the moment, though, Boyan's got other things on his mind, including campaigning for Bill Clinton (even though he's "more than a little mad at him"), finishing his thesis on tumor-zapping machines and, from the looks of his picture on his home page (http://www.cs.cmu. edu/~jab), day-dreaming about the past summer's waterskiing. "For someone who works so hard on privacy issues," he admits, "I sure put a lot about myself out there."