It just got easier to remain a nobody on the Web. On Tuesday, Anonymizer.com is launching the first major update to its US$29 ($54.77)-a-year privacy service, called Anonymizer Private Surfing 2.
The Anonymizer service, unveiled in 1997, lets you surf without giving away personal information to nosy Web sites. It cloaks you by rewriting your browser's request, sanitizing the resulting pages, and returning them to you. The whole process adds 20 to 50 milliseconds to your browsing experience, but sites you visit can't identify you or your trail.
The update elevates the level of security while making it even easier to use, says Lance Cottrell, company founder and president.
"This represents a major evolution of our privacy service," Cottrell says. Traditionally, people have felt that good security required a compromise in convenience. That's no longer true, he says.
Private Surfing 2.0 offers a handful of improvements to the original service--most notably, support for Java scripts, Cottrell says. Sites can gather quite a bit of information using Java scripts, he says. Also, Cottrell says some security problems associated with Microsoft Internet Explorer have been related to Java scripts.
In the past, Anonymizer merely blocked Java scripts, since few sites used them. The site has had to address the technology as it has become more popular, Cottrell says. When an Anonymizer user accesses a page with Java script, the service basically rewrites it so it won't reach any personal information.
Also new is the service's interface. In addition to an easier-to-use Web version of the program, the company is updating its downloadable toolbar. Initially introduced as Privacy Button, the Anonymizer Privacy Toolbar lets you activate and customize protection from your browser, without logging on to Anonymizer.com.
The advantages of Anonymizer are clear for people, companies, and even governments that deal in highly sensitive information. But what do Joe and Jane Surfer have to hide?
It's more complicated than that, Cottrell says. It is true that subscribers can use the service to keep their employers from seeing what they're doing online at work. And it can help you hide a browser's true history from your significant other. But Anonymizer's mission is to protect your information from the outside world, he says. This is especially true with the explosion of spyware on the Web.
"Most people are aware that there are privacy issues on the Internet, but the reality is that information gathering is now ubiquitous," he says. More than 90 percent of Web sites gather information, and with new technologies, such as Web bugs, you don't even have to see an ad to be tracked, he says.
"People think the advertisers don't know about them until they click on an ad, but that is not true," he says.
People may see no harm in advertisers taking a little information here or there. Over time, however, the accumulated information is significant, Cottrell says. And the Internet has a long memory, he notes.
"Google archives the entire Internet. Anything you say in a chat room is part of history," Cottrell says. With the cost of storage dropping, companies are likely to just hang onto that data, he says. "It's a scary situation. People aren't thinking about that."
No More Freebies
Launched as a free service that offered extra capabilities for a fee, Anonymizer is now a pay-only service. Its largely disabled free trial is for demonstration only, Cottrell says. "It's really only intended to give a flavor" of Anonymizer's capabilities.
Moving to an all-fee model reflected the times, he says. "When the dot-com bubble started to implode, we realized it was imperative that we get to profitability quickly. We limited the free trial, and turned it into a demo rather than a fully functional service." Anonymizer competitor SafeWeb.com, which hoped to offer anonymous surfing through advertising, dropped its service in November.
Now profitable with more than 500,000 users, Anonymizer offers several levels of service. For $29 yearly, you get the full-blown version 2 surfing service. Current subscribers automatically receive all the new features.
Users interested in even higher security can pay $99 annually to route all of their Internet communications through Anonymizer. By creating a personal virtual private network between a customer's PC and its servers, Anonymizer offers complete encrypted delivery of all e-mail and instant messages.