The creators of the new anti-tracking service “Mask Me” couldn’t have picked a more prescient time to launch their newest venture.
On July 24, the Boston-based online privacy firm Abine sent out a press release announcing the new service, which allows users to anonymously shop and surf the Web without disclosing credit card details or other personal information (such as email addresses or phone numbers).
The following week, the British newspaper The Guardian disclosed fresh details about the National Security Agency’s now infamous online tracking capabilities — reminding anyone with a computer just how vulnerable their privacy is online.
According to The Guardian, NSA employees can — without a warrant — access Internet users’ emails simply by typing an email address into an NSA database, follow a user’s Web searches based on that IP address and, if the employee knows the user’s Facebook username, read his or her private messages.
The program, known as XKeyScore, is intended to track foreign agents, rather than U.S. citizens (who do require a warrant), and is unlikely to be thwarted by private sector services such as MaskMe. But Internet users who are wary of being tracked can at least make it harder for data collectors to follow their trail.
That’s where MaskMe comes in. The week-old venture allows Web surfers to hide their personal details from prying eyes by assigning disposable aliases that are linked to the surfers’ real accounts.
That way, users don’t have to give out their contact information to online marketers (or potential government spies) or, if they sign up for MaskMe’s premium service, risk having their card details compromised.
The service works like this: If a website asks you for your email address, you simply place your cursor in the email field and a box will pop up asking if you want to “mask” your email or disclose it.
If you opt to mask the address, MaskMe will automatically generate a fake email that you can use instead. Whatever emails you receive from the website you visited will then be forwarded to your inbox and can be quickly blocked if the website sends you spam.
MaskMe’s credit card service works in almost the same way. Anytime you shop online and hit checkout, MaskMe will ask you if want to use a “masked card” in place of your real card information. If you choose to mask your card details, the service will autofill a fake set of numbers for you. All you have to do then is type in the exact amount that you want charged to your card.
The Masked card — which is similar to other virtual credit card services that are out there, such as ShopShield — is a good deal for users who frequently shop online and are skeptical of new merchants (or are worried their credit card details could be compromised in a security breach). However, if, like me, you’re just an occasional online shopper, then the fees for MaskMe’s faux card service may be more than you’re willing to pay.
Unlike the site’s email masking service, which is free and easy to use (I tried it myself and was impressed), the site’s premium service — including the Masked card add-on — is pricey.
Currently, it costs $5 per month to upgrade to the premium service — which adds up to $60 per year. That’s a lot of money to pay for occasional peace of mind. Users who are simply interested in hiding their credit card details behind a temporary number can find similar services for free. (Bank of America, Citi and Discover all offer virtual credit card numbers to their customers.)
With that said, MaskMe’s creators may not have such a hard time signing up some privacy advocates now that the latest round of NSA leaks is out. If anything, the most recent revelations from The Guardian just underscore how little guaranteed online privacy we have left.