BROOKE GLADSTONE: With Google's subpoenas and NSA wiretaps in the news, the struggle begins in earnest for what has long been the privacy advocate's Holy Grail – online anonymity. So-called privacy geeks have long sought to create a user-friendly cloaking device that allows anyone to anonymously surf the Net. The latest advance in computer cloaking was unveiled this month at a hacker convention in Washington, DC. Quinn Norton of Wired News describes the new technology and the kind of information, personal information, it seeks to protect.
QUINN NORTON: Every time you go to a website, identifying information about yourself and your computer is left there. If you're looking for a restaurant near your home address, there's nothing stopping you from putting in your home address and the kind of food you're looking for. Well, you've just blown all your anonymity right there, and most people don't realize that they've done that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what exactly did these hackers unveil last week?
QUINN NORTON: What they've done is put together a lot of the tools that had been available to privacy geeks into one package with a focus on making it usable for everyone. They've narrowed it down to three things, maybe four, you can do with it at all. One of them is a Web browser, one of them is e-mail; one of them is an instant messaging client.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how does it keep other people from figuring out who you are?
QUINN NORTON: They've addressed this on a lot of levels, literally from changing the way the packet looks on the Internet, so that an extremely advanced person in the technical field actually can't tell who you are, to just using a different default search engine that doesn't actually keep a log of your search requests like Google and AOL and MSN have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It doesn't keep a log on your computer, but it can't prevent Google or MSN from keeping a log.
QUINN NORTON: They're using a Google scraper called Scroogle that was set up by a Google watch organization that takes Google results. It dead-ends with their IP and they dump their logs every seven days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand that the biggest hitch is that it requires you to restart your computer, to reboot it in order to – [OVERTALK]
QUINN NORTON: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - begin to use the program and establish anonymity. And, of course, a lot of people in the developing world use cybercafés, and they don't allow you to start the machines that they're working on.
QUINN NORTON: That's correct. This is their version one, and there are some plans to put together a fob version, which would be a USB keychain that you could plug in and have probably a reduced level of anonymity off of what you could get from a complete reboot, but still something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anonymity on a keychain. That sounds so Philip K. Dick.
QUINN NORTON: That's kind of [LAUGHING] the world we're living in these days. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who is this application designed for? Is it designed for someone like me or for someone like a Chinese dissident or somebody who's gay in a country that can't tolerate it? Who's the ideal user?
QUINN NORTON: Well, when I asked them that, they said everyone. And I think what they mean is, it's not quite there yet for the Chinese dissident, but they want it to be for those people and they want it to be for people who are interested in reestablishing privacy in the Western world, in America and Europe. Privacy they see as something for everyone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written that the best hope for this software and for anonymity in general is for as many people to use it as possible for ordinary searches. Why is that? Because you'll be less noticed if everybody's using the same cloak?
QUINN NORTON: That's exactly right. The more traffic there is, the less likely a government or a non-governmental agency is going to look at an encrypted packet and say, "Ah, you're up to something."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, these hackers portray themselves as altruists, but aren't there nefarious ways in which anonymity could be exploited or abused?
QUINN NORTON: Absolutely. The bad people that are putting out child pornography or something right now, they're doing just fine. They're highly motivated to use the existing technologies. Making these technologies easier to use means that people who don't have as much motivation originally to guard their privacy now can really do that anyway. And the truth is about security that if you don't make it easy, people aren't going to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're always talking about China as the obvious foe in the privacy fight, but I guess we should put in a word for corporate interests who also have a lot to lose by the average online surfer, you know, going dark.
QUINN NORTON: That's true. I've known one person that I talked to in the privacy debate who said that she tries to optimize for as little privacy as possible because if she's going to be shown ads, she wants them to be relevant to things she wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
QUINN NORTON: And that's definitely the tension we're in. To a certain degree, we don't want a huge amount of anonymity. When I go to Amazon, I want Amazon to show me things that I want. On the other hand, when I go plug in something to a search engine that's just a random query off of the top of my head, that's not something I want to have to think about. I want that to be personal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, Quinn, can we have it both ways? Can we both have information tailored to us, based on our profiles in one sphere, and complete anonymity in another? Or do we have to be expected to pay a price for making either choice?
QUINN NORTON: I think that the very, very technical people that are working on this would say we can have it both ways, but it is going to be part of this continuing arms race. There are always going to be people that want to know more than we want to reveal. But we're in a situation where we can establish online identity, associate things that we want retailers to know with that identity, and then step away from it when we want to do private and personal things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Quinn, thanks a lot.
QUINN NORTON: [CHUCKLES] Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Quinn Norton is a technology writer for Wired News.