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Secret agents of the privacy wars

Who to hire when your digital flank is vulnerable. 

Though privacy has pretty much been declared dead in this show-all, tell-all digital neighborhood of ours, a new wave of startups is helping to resurrect it. Some offer their services free, like the website Disconnect (founded by a former Google engineer), which lets users shut off the tracking features of sites they want to visit. But given how public our private lives have become—consider the Electronic Frontier Foundation privacy lawyer who found a picture of himself on Google Street View sneaking a smoke a few blocks from work—it’s no surprise that some people are paying real money to obscure or erase their digital footprints.

For $99 a year, Reputation.com, based in Redwood City, will block the release of your name and personal information from large databases. If you pay more, it will customize your biography and place it on appropriate professional sites.

Reppler, a new Palo Alto firm, offers real-time alerts, helping college graduates and aspiring politicos move from “sweet weed, dude” to “here’s your spreadsheet, Doug” by rating their Facebook postings for profanity and references to drinking, drug use, and other slackerish behavior. The service has been called a morning-after pill for Facebook activity.

And if you’re really serious about disappearing from the web, you can hire someone like Frank Ahearn. For $20,000 to $25,000, Ahearn will create a forest around your tree, populating the Internet with other digital identities so your real stats are masked among the impostors. He may register you as the head of what’s called a shelf corporation—a business that’s gone dormant—and give you a fake address and phone number.

One client, “a very successful guy,” was sitting in a hotel bar in Africa, and suddenly the stranger he was talking to let drop something he should have had no way of knowing: the client’s hometown of Scarsdale, New York. The man was sufficiently creeped out— worried that the guy might stalk him, or worse—to hire Ahearn, who discovered that someone at the hotel had done an Internet spy search on him. Ahearn then created a false middle-class identity for the client to use while traveling.