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Entrepreneur's 'iCloak' Gadget Aims to Boost Internet Privacy

Eric Delisle and his startup company have created the iCloak Stik — a pinky-sized USB drive that offers online anonymity in a time of growing government "intrusion."

In an age when online privacy is elusive at best, an Orlando. Fla. tech entrepreneur has launched a project to protect your cyber self from the prying eyes of government, criminal hackers and data marketers.

Eric Delisle and his startup company have created the iCloak Stik — a pinky-sized USB drive that offers online anonymity for the layperson — and they're doing it with support from the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. A little more than halfway into the four-week funding effort, it has drawn more than 1,300 backers from 30 countries and $70,000 of its $75,000 goal.

That ranks iCloak in the top 20 among more than 150,000 Kickstarter campaigns.

"It has been insane — in a good way," said Delisle, CEO of DigiThinkIT Inc., a custom-software developer. "I totally underestimated the response."

Delisle, 43, said he began stewing about the need for such a tool in recent years as government "intrusion" in civilian life and well-financed corporate influence seemed to grow. The leaks by former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden revealing an extensive NSA surveillance program targeting American citizens were the final impetus.

"With Snowden, it clicked in my head: Everybody is being watched all the time," said Delisle, wearing a T-shirt sporting his "You Are Being Watched" iCloak logo. "And I saw a hole in the marketplace. There's no trusted, go-to brand that people can count on to protect their privacy or anonymity."

Those with technical savvy, Delisle and other experts said, already know how to access identity-cloaking tools online. The beauty of iCloak — if it works — would be its simplicity.

"It's so easy even a blind monkey could do it," Delisle said.

A Lake County resident, Delisle considers himself a serial entrepreneur. He has been a sales manager for Westgate Resorts, a market researcher for MTV Networks, CEO of a martial-arts event production company and a consultant to the National Science Foundation.

But his iCloak invention, he said, may prove to be his biggest venture yet.

The $50 basic model works by bypassing your hard drive and software to use a security-hardened operating system, secure Web browser and encrypted password management. According to the Kickstarter campaign page, "you can plug it into any machine — even the most unsafe and virus-filled — reboot the machine and start browsing as if you were using the safest, most secure and untraceable computer on the planet." Your location and identity are masked.

Lisa Macon, dean of the division of engineering, computer programming and technology at Valencia College, agreed that the device could make privacy more accessible. "I think what [he's] doing is a really cool idea," she said. "It certainly would be easier to pop in a USB device than to be thinking, 'OK, I need to cover the Web cam and go in through the proxy server…' "

The product is in the hands of 50 testers across the country, and results so far are successful, Delisle said. The money from the Kickstarter campaign would be used for independent testing. If all goes well, the iCloak could be produced and shipped as soon as this fall.

Macon said it could be appealing. Even those unbothered by government surveillance, she said, may be concerned by data brokers who snoop on shopping habits and personal information to compile online dossiers.

Such snooping is a lucrative and growing industry, said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. And it presents problems.

"We know some retailers engage in discriminatory pricing based on the information they collect," Stephens said. "There's a lot of information that can be crammed into those cookies they place on your computer. They might look at what type of operating system you use, for instance, and adjust their pricing accordingly. Apple users are deemed to be less price-sensitive than those who use Windows."

But the iCloak taps into the extensive Tor network, a sort of underground railroad that routes your online interactions through random global relay points to make tracing the sender extremely difficult. The network is used for both legal and illicit purposes — just as the iCloak could be.

"It's another tool," Delisle said. "And, frankly, the bad guys have been using these tools for years. But the average John and Mary Smith haven't."

Yet Macon, for one, has concerns. "As soon as they have a solution to this, I think the nefarious parties as well as the government will figure a way around it," she said. "The real question is: How long would it last?"

And Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautions: "It's very easy to go wrong in this area." The Kickstarter claim of rendering your computer untraceable, he added, "seems massively overconfident."

Delisle acknowledges that what appears rock-solid today can be compromised tomorrow. And he vows to work with the "open source community," which freely shares computer coding to collectively solve problems.

"We mitigate this by staying abreast of all that's happening in the online anonymity, security and privacy space and evolving iCloak to keep up with these changes," he writes. "But the bottom line is that we want to enable people to make their own choices about privacy."

©2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)