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Privacy future dims

If the digerati had their way, we’d all be anonymous on the Net.

While several proposals address the privacy issue in this session of Congress, few address a central issue: to what extent should we be allowed anonymity on the Web? Most of the proposed laws set limits on how much information can be gathered and shared about our surfing habits. The flip side deals with our ability to conceal our identity.

While companies like Zero-Knowledge Systems let us avoid the direct marketing game and all the privacy infringement that goes along with it, they also allow criminals to escape detection. This issue took center stage in a Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2001 conference, described on our site today.

The problem is, online privacy is being hit by both private and public interests. Commercial interests have lobbied to prevent privacy laws of any kind. Their argument is to let commercial interests come up with solutions. Enter Zero-Knowledge and its ilk, which offer commercial software that conceals surfers’ identities. But law enforcement agencies like the FBI want to limit this type of software because it can be used to conceal criminal identity.

This is similar to conservative opposition to strong-encryption export. If software manufacturers were allowed to bundle strong-encryption features into their products for foreign markets, it would be a boon to commercial interests but it also would allow terrorists to escape detection. For a long time, our legislators crippled commercial interests for the sake of law enforcement, forcing software manufacturers to create weakened versions of their products for oversees shipments.

I suspect this may be an ulterior motive behind the recent spate of privacy laws. Conservative lawmakers are stuck between the law enforcement rock and the commercial hard place and they will yield to the former. This means we will have new privacy laws, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it also meant new laws limiting identity veils like Zero-Knowledge Freedom 2.0 Internet Privacy Suite. For example, Canadian Zero-Knowledge would be prohibited from exporting Freedom 2.0 into the United States without a key that law enforcement agents could use to unlock the identity of a suspected Internet criminal.

The public will suffer if this is the case, because I would not expect very strong privacy laws to make it all the way to the President. But I would expect fairly strong controls on identity-concealing software, leaving users with no safe harbor from the prying eyes of direct marketers. As some of the conference attendees pronounced, our laws are heading into familiar territory, where the criminal behavior of the few restricts the free movements of the many.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine. Also check out his monthly Insights column in ComputerUser magazine.

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