Programs that can instantly erase the electronic trail a web surfer leaves behind are raising concerns for school administrators. Supporters of such privacy programs say they are beneficial, because they free space on a computer’s hard drive—but critics say they are detrimental, because students (or employees) could visit inappropriate web sites surreptitiously without leaving any trace of their activity.

New York-based Advercast LLC makes such privacy tools. Advercast recently released an upgraded version of its popular privacy utility, SurfSecret, complete with several new features and Windows 2000 compatibility.

SurfSecret is marketed as a complete privacy tool. Without privacy software, pictures and text get stored on a computer’s hard disk, creating a mirror image of the user’s surfing experience and a cache of files stored on the hard drive that can be easily traced.

SurfSecret destroys the trail left by normal web surfing by erasing this cache as you go, according to its creators. Users can surf anywhere they want, and the program clears the electronic history from the hard drive.

According to the creative director for SurfSecret, Joe Oringer, the program was originally designed for use in the private business sector, but it has received a lot of attention from public institutions as well.

“I have no objection to this type of program. Privacy is a very important issue,” said Jim O’Halloran, director of marketing for the education division of N2H2, a producer of server-based internet filtering systems for schools. “But I believe school administrators want to at least have the ability to monitor what has happened on their computers, and this software would make that much more difficult, without some other device that would monitor internet history.”

Advercast executives see SurfSecret as a boon for K-12 districts and school libraries. “A computer that is used by a lot of people has to be able to clean out its history. It’s very distracting for someone sitting down at a public computer to enter a URL and have the rest of the site name pop up,” said Oringer.

Not so, argues Trevor Shaw, director of technology for St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey. “I have a hard time seeing why a school would find this product useful,” he said. “After all, you can set the size that a cache can grow to. And going to a machine’s history folder [to monitor internet use] is hit or miss. A human being looking over shoulders coupled with some type of proxy server is best.”

Designed to work on Windows-based computers, SurfSecret integrates with popular browsers such as Netscape, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and America Online. The program also cleans the tracks in important Windows locations, including the document, run, and find menus and recycle bin.

Other features include a “stealth mode” and password protection to keep SurfSecret’s operation concealed. School technology coordinators can use the program without students knowing they aren’t leaving a history behind, according to the company.

“Kids don’t necessarily have to know that SurfSecret is running when they use the internet,” Oringer explained. The fear of getting caught looking at inappropriate web sites is still in place and acting as a deterrent. “Also, if a kid stumbles onto something inappropriate by accident, this clears all traces of that site away so the next kid can’t come along and see it in the machine’s history,” he added.

Although the company doesn’t explicitly market SurfSecret to users who want to erase any trail of their web-surfing habits surreptitiously, Advercast acknowledges that the product’s stealth mode makes this possible. On its web site, under the heading “What people are saying,” the following posting appears:

“My company’s computer policy is so strict—now I can visit the sites I want without leaving any trail. SurfSecret installed in seconds and was incredibly easy to customize!”—Sarah D. (New York).

But what about ensuring that students can’t get their eyes on violent or pornographic web sites, educators might ask?

“You can’t really have it both ways,” said Oringer. “Either you have privacy or you don’t. There are so many products designed to invade people’s lives, and not many tools representing the other side.”

Shaw disagrees about the appropriateness of privacy tools like SurfSecret for schools. “We too often confuse freedom of speech with privacy. Students do not necessarily need to go wherever they want on the internet and not be held accountable by teachers,” he said.

SurfSecret
http://www.surfsecret.com

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

St. Benedict’s Preparatory School
http://www.sbp.org