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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Privacy Projects Look to the East

SAN FRANCISCO -- While technologies to protect personal online privacy have stalled in the world's richest nations, they're still in grave demand from human rights workers in other countries, experts said at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference that ended in San Francisco on Friday.

Five years ago there was a burgeoning consumer personal privacy market in North America, with a growing list of software and services that allowed people to maintain their anonymity on the Internet, said Ian Goldberg, chief scientist at Montreal-based Internet privacy provider Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc.

There were anonymous e-mail and web surfing systems, and a company called DigiCash was preparing to roll out a service that would allow for anonymous web shopping. "The future for privacy-enhancing technologies seemed promising," he said.

But the complexity of the technologies kept them from being widely adopted and the free services were costing companies too much, Goldberg said. For example, Zero-Knowledge's Freedom Network, for anonymous web surfing, was shut down because it was too expensive to run, he said.

Meanwhile, a group of technologists in the United States is working on exporting its privacy technologies to countries like Russia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Guatemala.

San Francisco-based Benetech is a nonprofit technology company that is working on a project dubbed "Martus," after the Greek word for "witness," said Marc Levine, a senior product manager at Benetech. The group is following in the footsteps of Phil Zimmermann, creator of the PGP or Pretty Good Privacy encryption software used to scramble e-mail and other electronic communications so they are read only by the intended recipient. Zimmermann has said he invented the technology specifically to help human rights organizations in eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Martus, which is expected to be launched later this year, is a simple-to-use program that will allow nongovernmental organizations to keep their sensitive information safe, according to Levine.

"I don't think that American consumers feel the dire consequences that human rights NGOs feel by having their information read by the wrong eyes," he said.

"For Martus it's a matter of life and death," said session attendee David Singer, an Internet technology engineer.

Personal privacy services failed to take off in the United States because people didn't think the risk was a high enough priority to work with the often complicated systems, he said.

"If you don't have a problem that people think needs to be solved, it doesn't matter how good the technology is," people won't use it, Singer added.

Since the market failed to take off, most privacy firms have begun reinventing themselves to focus on offering software and services to help corporations manage their online privacy policies, like Zero-Knowledge has done.

One exception is, a service that allows anonymous web surfing for $5 a month.

After simplifying its interface and features, the web site "started making money overnight," said President Lance Cottrell. The site now has "tens of thousands" of paying customers, he added.