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Users, IT in Privacy 'Arms Race'

Users bring anonymous browsing tools to work, evoking the ire of IT departments

The IT department limits Internet access; employees bypass the access restrictions. IT blocks Websites that aren't related to business; employees surf any site they want via anonymous proxy services. IT blocks anonymous proxy services; employees install anonymous browsers.

No matter what barriers or monitors the IT department puts on Internet access, at least a few tech-savvy, rebellious employees find ways to skirt them. And the problem is escalating, experts say.

"It's always been an arms race between IT and employees, but there's more technology out there now," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group. "As IT develops more sophisticated ways to restrict or monitor users' Web behavior, employees develop more sophisticated ways to get around them."

And some hackers are taking the employees' side, IT experts groan. "There's a real rebel movement out there to keep the Internet open, even inside the business," says Joe Lowry, marketing engineering manager at Cymphonix, which makes tools for monitoring and controlling Internet access. "You can go on the Web and find whole manuals on how to disable corporate content filtering technologies."

To be sure, technologies and services for anonymous Web browsing are improving almost weekly. In early August, Private Date Finder LLC launched a new anonymous proxy service, EverPrivate, which joined the ranks of low-cost services such as Anonymizer. (See Web Service Hides Behavior.)In late August, Browzar launched a new "browser" that hides history and cookies in Internet Explorer, though critics have since called it deeply flawed. (See New Browser Hides User Behavior.) And just last week, an open source group called Hactivism introduced an anonymous browser for the Firefox environment. (See Hactivism Group Launches Anonymous Browser.)

Meanwhile, vendors have begun to strike back on behalf of their IT department customers. Cymphonix launched a new feature, Anonymous Proxy Guard, for its Network Composer product. The feature, which doesn't ship until Oct., already has an unprecedented number of pre-orders, according to Lowry.

So what's the deal here? Is there an accelerating arms race between users and IT administrators for the right to control employees' surfing behavior? Yes and no, experts say.

IT departments are cracking down on Internet access in order to improve security and regulatory compliance, according to observers. As more attacks on end users come via browsers and unknown Websites, many IT departments are implementing greater restrictions on browsing. And thanks to regulatory compliance efforts such as SOX, HIPAA, and PCI, many companies now are required to restrict and monitor users' Web behavior.

At the same time, end users are bombarded with stories about identity theft and loss of personal information, which is making privacy services and software more popular than ever among consumers. Many experts see this security-consciousness as a positive trend -- until users bring anonymous browsing tools into the office and use them to hide from IT-based Web monitoring tools.

"We don't encourage our consumer users to bypass their corporate monitoring systems by using our product," says Lance Cottrell, president and founder of Anonymizer.com, one of the industry's oldest anonymous proxy services. "Not only is that unethical, it's not safe -- it could lead to serious problems for the company from legal or security perspectives."

Legally, it has been established that corporations own their devices and the data that resides on them, and they should maintain the right to monitor them, Cottrell observes.

But practically, some employees use consumer-oriented services such as Anonymizer in the workplace so that their managers or IT people won't be able to detect their misbehavior, Lowry says. "It's a problem for IT, because those [monitoring] systems are not just used for security, but also to regulate bandwidth usage. If IT can't see what users are doing, it may not know where all of its bandwidth is going."

Some IT departments are turning to features such as Cymphonix's Anonymous Proxy Guard, but even this feature doesn't work on Torpark, the anonymous browser published by Hactivism, which is installed as a native browser and can't be filtered or restricted at the Internet access point.

"I think these open source tools are doing users a disservice," says Cottrell.

But the arms race continues: Cymphonix is preparing to introduce a new product that detects the Torpark signature and prevents employees from accessing its anonymous capabilities, Lowry says.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Anonymizer.com
  • Cymphonix Inc.
  • Ever Private

    Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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