Blown To Bits

Net Circumvention Tools are Selling User Data

Monday, January 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Several commercial products make it possible to avoid leaving footprints and fingerprints as you browse the Web. These products are especially valuable in China, where Internet browsing is tracked and many requests are blocked by the “great firewall of China.” FirePhoenix, for example, displays these promises on its home page:

Protect Your Online Activities

FirePhoenix (FP) is a software to protect your privacy and identity when you surf the Internet. It effectively encrypts all your Internet traffic and anonymizes your IP address. In addition, it provides you with unrestricted access to Internet when your Internet connection is filtered, monitored or blocked by your company, your institution, your ISP or your country.

In a remarkable and frightening blog post this morning, Hal Roberts reports that FirePhoenix and two other major circumvention tool companies are selling data on users’ browsing histories. As the example of the release of AOL searches (chapter 2 of Blown to Bits) showed, search histories can often identify the users — and in this case, the users are likely dissidents living under repressive regimes with a history of imprisoning dissidents. Here is the sort of offer Hal points out:

Q: I am interested in more detailed and in-depth visit data. Are they available?
A: Yes, we can generate custom reports that cover different levels of details for your purposes, based on a fee. But data that can be used to identify a specific user are considered confidential and not shared with third parties unless you pass our strict screening test. Please contact us if you have such a need.

Now there is a protocol vulnerable to mistakes in human judgment with potentially tragic consequences.

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