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Last Updated: Friday, 2 September 2005, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Challenges of anonymous surfing
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

As more and more websites providing content are asking us to register our personal details before letting us in, what do we do if we want to protect our identity while surfing the web?

In the first of two reports covering online anonymity, Dan Simmons looks at why and how we might want to cover our tracks.

Computer user
Registering for websites puts off many surfers from some sites
Can you imagine having to hand over your personal details to strangers just in order to ask directions, or to peruse what is on offer at your local coffee shop?

When going online, that is increasingly what we are being asked to do.

We are not necessarily buying at these sites, and they do not charge a subscription, but they still demand we register our details before we take a good look around.

So why do these mainly content-driven sites care so much about who we are?

They want to collect details about users so they can sell on demographic information to their advertisers, says Rupert Goodwins, a journalist at ZDNet.

"This is to prove that so many people from so-and-so age group and such a location are looking at this site and therefore you can target your adverts at them," he explains.

"It's good, old-fashioned, targeted advertising."

Slipping through the net

Whether bypassing the registration process is ethically OK is debateable, but it has left some feeling they are not surfing the net - they are being caught in it.

Rupert Goodwins
They don't know you're not called Mickey Mouse
Rupert Goodwins, ZDNet
As Rupert Goodwins says, you might not want to give your details to one of these websites because you do not want them to spam you.

"The most obvious way to avoid giving them information is to give them fake information.

"Nobody's checking up on you. They don't know you're not called Mickey Mouse.

"They might want an e-mail address from you in order to send you the information you need in order to get onto the site; that's often quite a sneaky way of getting information out of you.

"But if you set up an e-mail address for just that purpose then you can get the information from them and delete the e-mail account and be perfectly safe."

Avoidance tactics

There are many sites offering temporary e-mail addresses which disappear after a few hours or days.

Mailinator lets you invent e-mail addresses while surfing.

Whateveryoulike@mailinator.com is only created when someone sends something to it.

In itself it is not secure - anyone can read any mail to any address - but remember it is not meant to be your personal account.

It is unlikely to exist the next day. Meanwhile, you have been sent the password you wanted.

Another way is to use services which collect usernames and passwords and pool them - services like Bug Me Not.

Inbox
Opening the floodgates to spam is just one worry users have
You simply type in the address of the page you want to access, and if it is one of the thousands of logins provided you can use the details instead of registering yourself.

Of course many countries have laws protecting any personal information you hand over, but it is not clear how well they are policed, and sometimes you have to agree to some marketing in order to sign up.

It is not just the fear of being spammed that makes people wary.

Wendy M Grossman, the author of net.wars, believes there are many good reasons why somebody may not want to identify yourself online.

This might be: "Somebody who has some really difficult thing pending in their life, like maybe they want to change sex, maybe they're getting bullied at school, maybe they're getting beaten up by their parents, something where they want help but they're afraid of the consequences to themselves if they disclose what's actually happening and it's tied back to them."

Unique IDs

Online tracking goes beyond registration forms.

Cookies, a sort of ID tag, are bits of information that pass between computer and website and show the owner what you click on or how often you visit.

This is how sites like Amazon get to know your preferences.

Unless you have logged-in, cookies do not tend to identify you personally, and you can stop your browser sending them, although because they are integral to how these sites run this can seriously hamper your browsing experience.

Another way we can be tracked is through an Internet Protocol, or IP, address.

Just as when writing a letter you include your own address for replies, so your computer sends out its unique ID.

This number is commonly used by companies, including the BBC, to determine where you are, so they can direct you to the most local or relevant version of their website.

However, if someone wants to, they can use it to identify which PC transferred certain information, which in turn could identify the sender.

So, just because you might not hand over your personal details online it does not necessarily mean you have complete anonymity while surfing.

Next week, we will look at how people can indeed retain complete anonymity, and ask if such systems open the door for paedophiles, terrorists and other criminals to operate much more freely.


Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.




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