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After NSA PRISM revelations, can MaskMe sell privacy to a spooked public?

In the world of Arrested Development, “FakeBlock” was a hot app that promised to keep your information private and delete your digital footprints. In the real world, Albine Inc. is hoping its own app can offer the same services and become a blockbuster in its own right.
In the world of Arrested Development, “FakeBlock” was a hot app that promised to keep your information private and delete your digital footprints. In the real world, Albine Inc. is hoping its own app can offer the same services and become a blockbuster in its own right.Credit:

Given recent news reports of US government spying on the Internet, Abine Inc. of Boston couldn’t have picked a better moment to introduce MaskMe, a new privacy tool that lets users send anonymous e-mails and make online purchases using dummy credit card numbers.

“This is how we’re going to use the Internet going forward,” said Abine’s chief executive Bill Kerrigan.

Claims by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden about a secret data interception program called PRISM has infuriated civil libertarians and members of Congress. But Kerrigan said the disclosures have also alerted ordinary consumers to stronger privacy protections.

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Abine was founded in 2008 by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company makes DoNotTrackMe, a program that prevents companies from planting “tracking cookies” on a user’s computer. Such cookies let advertisers and social networks such as Facebook collect sensitive information about people by recording the websites they visit. Abine also offers DeleteMe, a fee-based service that uses human researchers to locate all online information about a client. DeleteMe then works with search services and website operators to have this information deleted.

The new MaskMe service can automatically generate an e-mail “alias” which can be used to register for online services, rather than the user’s real e-mail address. All mail sent to the alias is forwarded to the user. But if this alias is ever used for an illicit purpose, such as generating spam, it can be permanently blocked without affecting the true e-mail address.

MaskMe offers its e-mail service at no charge. Abine also offers a premium version for $5 a month, which will generate an alias for phone numbers and credit card numbers. An online shopper can enter an alias to make a purchase at an online store. But the same number won’t work at other retailers if it’s stolen. A MaskMe premium user can also give out alias phone numbers to acquaintances or business associates. Calls to these numbers are forwarded to the user’s phone, but callers never learn the true phone number, and the alias numbers can be cancelled at any time.

Heidi Shey, a data security analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, isn’t quite so sure consumers are fired up about digital privacy.

“People always say they’re more concerned than they really are,” said Shey, whose surveys find that most people aren’t doing much to protect themselves. As of late last year, only 13 percent of Internet users had activated settings in their Internet browsers to block tracking cookies, and only 5 percent had installed cookie-blocking programs like Abine’s DoNotTrackMe.

Still, Shey’s research was carried out before the NSA stories began to break. As a result, “I think people are waking up,” she said.

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