MaskMe: The next best thing to total Web anonymity
Abine's MaskMe browser app lets you keep spammers, scammers, and telemarketers at bay -- and even shop anonymously on line.
When it comes to online privacy, you can run but you cannot hide.
You can fake it on Facebook. You can assume any number of pseudonymous identities on Twitter. You can sign up for disposable email addresses and online phone numbers, use a browser plug in to tell ad trackers to sod off, and surf the Web via a Tor connection to keep spies guessing as to your actual identity and location.
But when you want to do anything real – like buying or selling something – all those privacy safeguards melt away. Unless you’re willing to dive into the shady world of virtual currencies, you’ve got to pull off the mask and pony up a real name, a working address and phone number, and an actual 16-digit credit card number.
The free version does the following:
* It randomly generates email addresses you can use when you sign up for a Web site, then forwards messages to your real email inbox. If you start getting spam at that address, you can simply turn off forwarding from MaskMe’s dashboard.
* It also randomly generates inscrutable passwords and makes them easy to manage and change.
* It lets you sync your masked emails and passwords and use them on any other device, as well as on MaskMe’s Android and iOS apps.
There are lots of different tools that do these kinds of things, though I don’t know of any that do all of them, or any that make it so simple. But if you’re willing to fork over $5 a month, that’s when MaskMe gets interesting.
The premium version of MaskMe gives you:
* A disposable phone number that redirects to any number you choose. So if telemarketers (or your ex) start haranguing you, you can block them with just a click. They’ll hear a “Sorry, this number is not available” recording.
* A virtual pre-paid credit card that lets you make purchases online without revealing your real credit card number. When you’re done using it, you can de-activate the card with a click.
It’s that last one that got me really excited. If you can conduct actual business without have to open the kimono and show the Web merchant your particulars, true online pseudonymity starts to become a reality.
To check it out, I signed up for the premium service, created a new account at Amazon, and purchased a digital download for $15. Here’s the card I used:
Instead of plugging in my own credit card number, I clicked inside the Credit Card No. field, told MaskMe how much money to put on the card, then clicked Next and Use My Masked Card. It automatically generated a virtual version of the prepaid card you see above.
In this transaction, Abine acted as the intermediary; their name shows up on my credit card statement, not Amazon’s. And as far as Amazon was concerned, Abine bought that Mumford & Sons album, not me.
Of course, there are some caveats. At present, MaskMe only works with U.S.-based accounts. The minimum amount you can put on a card is $10 (though you can continue to use that card for smaller purchases until the money runs out). The cards max out at $100, though if you take a couple of extra steps to verify your card you can bump the limit to $500. If you run into problems with the merchant and request a refund, the money will have to go to Abine first, before they put it back on your card.
Still, the process is not entirely anonymous. If you want to actually receive the goods you’ve ordered, you’ll need to provide a valid shipping address, which can usually be traced back to your real name. (Though I always use a UPS Store mailbox for this sort of thing – harder to trace back to my actual identity, and easily worth the $10 a month.)
Disturbingly, even when I used a bogus name on my Amazon account, the virtual card still displayed my real name. Not to worry, says the vigilant and angelic Sarah A. Downey of Abine. Though the card displays my name, it’s just part of MaskMe’s user interface – it’s not information that’s shared with the merchant, she assures me. That means you can legally shop under a pseudonym.
Drop down gorgeous
MaskMe is pretty good, but the process isn’t always exactly seamless. As with Abine’s DoNotTrackMe tool, MaskMe’s performance varies from one Web site to the next. With sites like LinkedIn, for example, it worked like a charm, displaying an option for creating a new email or password the second I clicked on the login form.
With sites like Pinterest, I had to right-click and use drop-down menus to access MaskMe’s stuff. A bit more work, but not onerous.
But with yet other sites, I ran into some problems. For reasons that are yet unclear, it took me four tries before Tumblr would let me create a new account with MaskMe. I had to grapple with CAPTCHAs before Twitter would recognize me as a human. With other things that required a logon, like Amazon’s Cloud Player, I had to manually copy and paste my MaskMe info.
Downey acknowledges that MaskMe works better with some Web forms than others, but she notes that workarounds are always available. You know that old line about how if you really want privacy you have to be willing to sacrifice some convenience? That applies here.
A fresh start?
The biggest thing you need to remember about MaskMe is that it’s really best when you’re signing up for a site you’ve never used before. To use it with, say, your existing Facebook account, you’d need to log in as normal, then go into your settings and change your email and password logon to the random ones generated by MaskMe, then log out. And you’d need to do that for every single site you already use – there’s no way to do it all at once.
The question is, Why would you? These sites already have your identity. Facebook in particular is infamous for keeping all your data for as long as it can. Changing your logons now won’t change what they already know about you. And, of course, you’re sharing so much personal information on social sites that in this context going anonymous is kind of pointless.
Unless you’re a total newbie entering the Web for the first time, you’re most likely to use MaskMe to open secondary social accounts where you don’t want your real-world identity to be known, or dealing with dodgy Web merchants you don’t entirely trust. And that’s fine.
I recently ordered a new projector lamp from a Web site I had never used before, which immediately charged my card but didn’t send the lamp for two weeks. I had to threaten them to get them to cancel the charges, worrying the whole time that I was being scammed. (Turns out I wasn’t.) If I’d had a virtual credit card back then, I could have immediately de-activated it, and kept potential scammers from charging any more to it than they already had. That alone is worth $5 a month to me.
Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.
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