2001-10-19 14:38:59 -- http://www.newciv.org/pic/nl/catpic/lib/computer.gif
America both reveres anonymity as a sanctuary for the oppressed and rejects it as a refuge for conspirators. Laws guarantee you the right to confront your accuser in court. At the same time, secret ballots remain the bedrock of self-governance, offering you a chance to freely vote your conscience without fear of retribution.
The Internet, which offers anonymity to knowledgeable users through a historical accident of engineering, is currently caught up in that dichotomy. The events of Sept. 11 have spurred many to ask whether it's reasonable and responsible to let anybody--even potential terrorists--use the Internet to communicate anonymously. That debate, which is currently raging in Washington, will not be resolved soon.
But it's likely that courts won't allow the complete elimination of anonymity in cyberspace, if only because in the past they've held that anonymous speech is critical for a democratic society. Beginning with the Federalist Papers, speaking your mind without letting people know who you are has played a critical role in this nation's development. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a 1995 case, "Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent." In that spirit, there are a number of ways to keep your identity a secret in cyberspace.
First, you need to get a sense of how much information you give up when you visit a Web site. To get a demonstration, check out [link]
Every time you visit a Web site, you leave behind facts about your computer, your Web browser, your Internet Protocol address, whether you're dialing in from work.
Fortunately, there are ways to maintain your privacy and move anonymously in cyberspace. You can use e-mail addresses that can't be traced back to your Internet account without a subpoena, using services such as [link] or [link] Accessing the network from a terminal that can't be traced back to your credit card, such as a public library, also can be effective. Use of a credit card online can provide immediate proof of identity to a Web site, and that information is sometimes shared with other Web sites.
In addition, there are a number of tools that can help shield your activities from prying eyes.
Start with Guidescope, at [link] Guidescope is a relatively new program that blocks advertisements from showing up on your Web browser. This is great because it can keep both cookies and Web bugs off your computer.
Cookies are a way for Web sites to note information about your preferences--like the way you'd like information on their Web page presented on your screen. Cookies serve as a kind of identifier, primarily noting when you make a return visit. The site has no idea who you are until you tell it, usually by buying something with a credit card.
Once that happens, pretty much everything you do on the site can be tracked through the cookie. Web bugs are more insidious; they're invisible bits of code that can track your movements and activities between Web sites. Guidescope, and other proxies, can block those nasties, but you've got to pay attention and configure things properly. It's free.
Anonymizer offers similar protection and is available through [link] There's a free service with limited features and a paid subscription that costs $50 annually and offers better features.
"There are no logs or tracking on any individual," Chief Executive Bill Unrue said. "We do stand on our heads to cooperate with law enforcement, but they won't find any logs here." But the service is not meant to be a tool for bad guys, Unrue said. His crew will block inappropriate uses--such as death threats.
Finally, consider using encryption. E-mail traverses the Internet in the clear, meaning anybody who can see the data passing by on the network can read it. Encryption can put the equivalent of an envelope on the postcard, so only the intended recipient can read it. The standard form of encryption is PGP. You can get a free copy from [link]
Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.