Undercover Agents

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - Imagine running into Kmart to pick up a snow shovel the night before what's expected to be the winter's worst blizzard. On your way in, a security guard steps in front of you and thrusts a clipboard into your hand. Before you can go any farther, you must write down your name, address, age, income bracket and how many kids you have. Only then can you buy your shovel.

Ridiculous? Yes. But quite often this is the kind of data-gathering you're faced with online. If you're like 27 percent of online consumers, those tedious, time-consuming and frankly suspicious registration forms are a cue to click away, according to a February 1999 Jupiter Communications survey. In fact, 64 percent of online consumers say that such forms make them unlikely to trust a Web site, Jupiter reported in August.

The convenience of an online shopping cart simply isn't enough incentive to put your privacy at risk. "People say that if they're on a Web site that requires registration to get in, they just make something up," says Beth Givens, privacy director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. "People are cautious about putting correct personal information on these Web sites because they don't know what's going to be done with it."

The fear, of course, is that detailed electronic dossiers - containing your demographic information, hobbies, health problems, religion, political affiliation and favorite Backstreet Boy - will make you a bull's-eye for target marketers.

That's where identity management products come in. "Right now, we're first helping people to protect their privacy," says Austin Hill, president of Zero-Knowledge Systems, a Montreal company that has generated a lot of fanfare for its online alias software. "But the future is not anonymity, it's persistent pseudo-anonymity," he says.

Depending on which of the half-dozen identity management companies you work with, the software automatically fills in forms for you with data you've supplied, fields target-marketed e-mail, rates sites' privacy policies or gives you the option to lie about who you are (until you're ready to enter a credit card number). Like a closet for your online avatars, identity management firms provide aliases for consumer forays into e-commerce and entertainment.

The Good Life

"[Identity management software] simplifies online life," says Jim Rothstein, a graduate student in mathematics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

"I used to have to carry around a loose leaf full of passwords and IDs. Now I never type in my Visa card number or explain why my shipping and billing addresses are different."

Rothstein uses Ezlogin.com. Based in Santa Clara, Calif., Ezlogin lets people securely store multiple login names and passwords, access bookmarks and view personalized news or information, all in one location. Unlike Microsoft Passport, which works only at participating sites, Ezlogin.com's form filler works on nearly any site.

"We're giving people the ability to define numerous profiles," or online personalities, says Ezlogin President and CEO Jean-Noel Lebrun. "Then you can apply any one of those profiles when you register at a new site, or when you check out [at a virtual cash register]."

Translation: Your identity depends on which profile you select. If it's a site you trust and intend to have a long-term business relationship with, perhaps you'll show the real you. If it's a new Web site with a questionable reputation, it may be in your best interests to browse in disguise.

"Our service also gives you a new proxy e-mail address each time you register with a new Web site to forward messages to your real e-mail address," adds Lebrun. "You can [cut them off] very easily without impacting your other e-mail activities."

Of course, the business of identity management shouldn't be seen as a wholly altruistic venture. The ways to cash in on identity management vary tremendously, including cobranding with other sites or selling software.

Ezlogin.com expects to make a killing through affiliate programs, licensing fees and revenue sharing with other sites on the Net.

Also Known As ...

One Ezlogin customer is Marketvoyager.com, a Youngstown, Ohio, financial portal that focuses on emerging markets. In October, Marketvoyager integrated Ezlogin's JumpPage technology into its site, so consumers can shield their identities if they wish. Not only does cofounder Nitin Badjatia hope Ezlogin features will increase the stickiness of Marketvoyager.com, he believes the ability to manage identities fits his clients like a glove.

"One of the things you get used to in doing financial research is filling in forms all the time," says Badjatia. "You become very sensitive to what you're sending out. You want to make sure you control what's done with your name and personal information, but still have legitimate access to a site."

Playing both sides of the identity management game is Enonymous.com. The San Diego-based "infomediary" and identity management firm plans to build a new method of data collection that gathers consumer demographics, and then removes personal identifiers before selling it to another party.

"A person's characteristic data can be revealed to a merchant without giving out a name and address," explains David Taylor, CEO of Enonymous.com, about the service slated to launch sometime this year.

On the other side of the equation, Enonymous.com will provide anonymous e-mail boxes. Consumers can read targeted messages based on the demographic information they provide. Adventure travelers can be notified of outdoor gear sales or special excursion packages without the merchant knowing the real e-mail address of the potential customer.

Another example might be the parent of a child who has AIDS. "You're interested in getting information from research organizations, but you don't want anyone to know your child's condition," illustrates Taylor. "You can now have communities based on knowledge about consumers," but with anonymity intact.

Right now, though, Enonymous.com is making waves with the Enonymous Advisor utility. Download the free software, and Enonymous Advisor stores your contact and credit card information on your computer. (By contrast, Novell's Digitalme holds data on its own servers, so the services can be used from any computer you visit.) With Enonymous, only your demographic and interest information is stored in the secure Enonymous database.

Enonymous.com keeps tabs on your age, gender, likes and dislikes, and other personal and demographic information - but it does not reveal your actual identity. Enonymous Advisor also informs users about how well a site's particular privacy policy stacks up. Hit a form page on any of 20,000 Web sites and up comes the site's rating, on a four-star scale.

For example, eBay and Hotmail score four stars, while Amazon.com only gets one star because, as the retailer's posted privacy policy states, "Amazon.com does not sell, trade or rent your personal information to others" but "may choose to do so in the future with trustworthy third parties," unless you compose a message to never@amazon.com.

Indeed, according to an October 1999 IBM/Harris Poll, more than 57 percent of U.S. respondents who use the Internet have clicked away from the Buy button at least once due to privacy concerns.

"My suggestion for consumers is to use systems that let you provide an alias," says Givens. "But also look closely at how your personal information is going to be held by that infomediary."

Simply put, think about e-commerce as a masquerade ball, but also be aware of who's renting the costumes.

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