New Anonymity Service Raises Ethical Questions

This week, Canadian startup Zero-Knowledge Systems began selling a service that will allow Internet users to choose fictitious names for such activities as sending e-mail, visiting Web sites or joining newsgroups.

The closely held company claims that it is protecting the privacy of Web surfers and takes its name from the fact that it will not have the ability to link users’ real identities to their pseudonyms, even if ordered by a court.

No matter which way one looks at it, this disastrous so-called service serves little purpose other than to open the door for cowardly and even mentally deranged individuals to pepper victims with harassment and libelous attacks, and other unethical behavior.

You Can Ask, But We Can’t Tell

Zero-Knowledge claims that it can still block mail accounts associated with individual pseudonyms, but has limited ability to help law enforcement track any offenders.

In fact, company president Austin Hill says the company’s best defense is that “we don’t know.”

The company goes on to argue that the privacy benefits outweigh the potential for abuse. It points to the fact that many people want greater privacy on the Internet, including those who want to express unpopular opinions in chat rooms or surf Web sites without leaving electronic footprints.

Zero-Knowledge also claims that it is providing the service for those who live under totalitarian regimes.

How It Works

Zero-Knowledge uses special encryption technology that is regulated by U.S. agencies in order to prevent use by criminals or foreign governments. For $50 (US$), users download the special software that lets them pick five pseudonyms and scrambles their messages and Web connections.

The packets of data are then passed through three independent Internet services, which each strip off a layer of identifying information that prevents the message from being traced back to its sender.

Hill also acknowledged that Zero-Knowledge chose to launch its service in Canada in order to minimize its problems with U.S. regulations on such encryption.

Privacy Issue Used As A Cover

This “service” is exactly the kind of nuisance that I feared might surface as a result of the industry’s poor privacy standards.

Let’s face it. There are always going to be an abundance of people who want anonymity to engage in unethical or even illegal activities via the Internet. However, because of the advent of this kind of service, newsgroups will be now be inundated with even more anonymous obscene and sometimes libelous messages — leaving their targets with no legal redress.

Additionally, every scam artist and spammer will have a virtual field day as they hide behind the pseudonyms that Zero-Knowledge peddles to them.

Shut Them Down

While I am not one for a lot of government intervention, Zero-Knowledge is one business enterprise that I would like to see the U.S. government pull the plug on.


What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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