You've got SPAM

New tools allow users to guard identity on the Web

It happens all the time. A Web site requires registering an e-mail address before access is granted.

After giving a name and e-mail address and responding to an e-mail confirmation, access to the site's content is granted. Although registration is simple enough, the results are all too often the same: More spam in one's inbox.

Beyond spam, protecting one's e-mail, identity or location is vital for certain users such as law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Tools have cropped up in recent years aimed at protecting identities and creating disposable addresses for consumers, businesses and agencies.

Mailinator and spamgourmet, for example, provide Web-based tools that allow users to easily create, manage and dispose of e-mails.

Yahoo Mail Plus subscribers can use AddressGuard to create disposable e-mail addresses, so they never have to give out their real ones.

AddressGuard enables users to create as many as 500 disposable addresses. Users who are suspicious that a Web site might sell or share information can register with a disposable e-mail. For example, some people create a different e-mail address for each online store they use.

Messages sent to a disposable address can be viewed in the main inbox or a folder.

Each disposable address has two parts: a base name and a keyword. The base name is the same for all the disposable addresses, but it's different from the user's Yahoo ID. The base name/key word combo keeps spammers from guessing the user's Yahoo ID and primary e-mail address.

The keyword part of the address identifies what the disposable address is being used for. The addresses take this form: base name keyword@yahoo.com.

If a company sells one of the disposable addresses and spam starts piling up, the user can simply delete the address without affecting the primary e-mail.

"In addition to controlling spam, AddressGuard helps protect user privacy," said Miles Libbey, anti-spam product manager of Yahoo. "Users can create alternate e-mail addresses that don't reveal their identity, without the hassle of maintaining separate e-mail accounts."

E-mail flak jacket

Yahoo's tool is great for spam protection and privacy, but in the world of law enforcement and intelligence, a more robust tool is a better fit.

Anonymize Inc.'s Anonymizer Nyms, for example, allows users to create anonymous, disposable e-mail addresses. Using a Nyms e-mail address, users are able to control incoming mail and identify where spam is being initiated.

"The system is designed to allow a user to manage a large [number] of different e-mail addresses through a single account," said Lance Cottrell, president and chief scientist of Anonymizer. "If you are an analyst ... going out to Web sites, a large number of those sites now require registration."

Through an automated interface, Nyms allows the user to spawn new e-mail addresses and assign them to Web sites on the fly. Then all the e-mail gets funneled into whatever real e-mail address or mailbox users choose.

"It is useful, particularly if you are going out and researching information on Web sites that might not necessarily be friendly to the U.S.," Cottrell said. "You don't really want to have that 'dot gov' e-mail address out there. And you don't really want them to be able to correlate your activities online either. So this allows you to make sure the address you give is not attributed to a government agency."

Because the e-mails addresses are unique, hostile groups cannot analyze or correlate them. Using just one e-mail could allow an enemy to see that one person is registered at 30 different Web sites.

Nyms is designed to complement another Anonymize product, Anonymous Surfing, which hides Internet protocol addresses so online snoops are unable to build a profile on users. It redirects Web traffic through secure servers to protect identities.

Nyms can be accessed through client software or a Web-interface system. When the application is launched, the user can create a new e-mail address with one click. The addresses can be deleted at any time.

Users can specify what kind of domains they want. Anonymize has a couple of standard, off-the-shelf domains, and customers can also request a specific domain.

The e-mails also can be geographically located, so if a user wants, Nyms can have the e-mail actually come from the Middle East or Asia, for example.

Analysts use Nyms to register with blog sites used for trading information on groups supporting terrorists. Once registered, the analysts log on every day and copy all the new data.

Part of the crowd

Law enforcement agencies are using the tools and services to investigate cybercrime, hackers and child pornography.

"The whole key with our services is to blend in with the crowd," Cottrell said.

The goal is not to make Web surfing invisible. That is impossible because users will always leave some sort of footprints.

"What we're really all about is enabling you to look like anyone, the everyman. You want to be as unremarkable as possible, so when someone is going through the thousands of entries in their log file, you don't stand out," Cottrell said.

The law enforcement officer looks like "the most boring user out there," Cottrell added. "We make sure you don't stand out, but if they ask you for an e-mail address, then you have one. It doesn't look unusual, and it doesn't necessarily look governmental. It just blends into the background."

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at dbeizer@1105govinfo.com.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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