Technology

Hiding Web trails

An Internet privacy product creates a public stir

Vince Beiser August 16 1999
Technology

Hiding Web trails

An Internet privacy product creates a public stir

Vince Beiser August 16 1999

Hiding Web trails

An Internet privacy product creates a public stir

Technology

Austin Hill wants to make Web surfers invisible. With the Internet increasingly becoming a place where people's movements and personal information are tracked, logged, bought and sold, Hills Montreal-based company, Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc., is set to launch a product that will conceal all cyber-wanderings. “Right now, the Net is like a street with a camera on every corner. Everything you do leaves a trace,” says Hill, Zero-Knowledges 26year-old president. Law enforcement agencies, employers and hackers can easily monitor e-mail and online chat; corporate Web sites gather information on visitors, then resell it to marketing companies. Zero-Knowledge’s Freedom software will prevent that by encrypting every communication a user sends.

Scheduled for commercial release late this year, Freedom is already generating a buzz among Silicon Valley venture capitalist and privacy advocates. But it is also unsettling law enforcement officials, who warn that the privacy software will make life easier for virus makers, pedophiles and other online miscreants. FBI chief Louis Freeh recendy told the

U.S. Senate that the widespread availability of strong encryption products will “devastate our capabilities for fighting crime, preventing acts of terrorism and protecting the national security.” Brent Pack, a so-called hacker hunter with the U.S. army’s computer crime investigation unit, agrees. “Our job is hard enough,” he says, “without adding any additional hurdles.”

There already are anonymous Websurfing services and e-mail encryption programs on the market. Freedom, however, is the first to bundle these functions in a single user-friendly application. Though it is still being tested, “the idea,” says Bruce Schneier, one of the industry’s leading cryptography experts, “is fundamentally sound.”

It works by stripping all data leaving a user’s computer of identifying information—be it e-mail, chat-room gossip or requests for Web pages—then wrapping it in several layers of 128-bit encryption, currently considered unbreakable. The data is then routed through a series of randomly chosen servers, each of which unwraps one of the encryption envelopes to find where

to send the packet next. That means no single server knows both the origin and destination of the packet. (Even ZeroKnowledge won’t know which data packets connect to which users, hence, the company name.)

Freedom allows users to create up to five pseudonymous identities, none of which can be traced. This sits nicely with privacy advocates. “The police would have a much easier time if they could enter your house or read your mail any time they wanted,” says David Jones, president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a cyber-rights group. “Why should e-mail be any less deserving of protection than a letter sent by Canada Post?”

Hill, too, is a longtime believer in individual freedom—especially his own. He quit high school at 15 to start a career as a computer security consultant. At 21, with the help of his older brother Hamnett, he co-founded what is now TotalNet Inc., one of Canada’s largest Internet service providers. After selling that venture for a hefty profit, the brothers founded Zero-Knowledge in 1997, along with their father, Hammie, a corporate accountant.

Overseeing Freedom’s development is star hacker and Toronto native Ian Goldberg, 26. In recent years, he has made headlines by cracking the digital security system used by Netscape’s Navigator and another used by many wireless phones, including Canada’s Fido Network.

While the demand for Web privacy is widespread and while the technology may be solid, the question remains: will people pay $75 to buy Freedom? Austin Hill is confident they will. The number of employees at Zero-Knowledge’s loftlike headquarters on Montreal’s now-hip Boulevard St. Laurent is projected to zoom from 50 to 110 in the next few months, and at least 50,000 volunteers have signed up to test Freedom’s new release. “We don’t expect overnight success,” says Hill, “but we expect it quick.”

Vince Beiser