Don't Leave an Internet Trail Behind You

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted September 01, 2006

The purpose of technology is to make our lives easier. Ironically, it often has the opposite effect. A case in point is the AutoComplete feature built into Internet Explorer. For those of you not familiar with this feature, AutoComplete is a service that, among other things, keeps track of the Web sites you've visited.

The reason it does this is because the next time you want to revisit that same site, AutoComplete will match the first few letters of the address you're entering against the list of sites you've previously visited, and automatically fill in the rest of the address for you. This is particularly useful for entering long, complicated Web addresses or for locating specific pages that you might have previously searched for, such as Microsoft Knowledge Base articles.

Some people complain about the AutoComplete feature, but, personally, I like it a lot. However, if you spend your free time visiting sites that might not be considered socially acceptable, then there is a possibility that it might end up embarrassing you.

I would never advocate using your office PC for any personal activities — especially to view gambling and adult sites. However, there are other things that your system is capable of storing that could compromise your privacy. For instance, let's say you used your office PC to access your bank account and pay your bills. One of the functions of AutoComplete is that, in addition to storing Web addresses; it can also store usernames and passwords of your accounts.

If you're not careful, AutoComplete could inadvertently let unauthorized people gain access to your sensitive information. This is especially relevant if you share your PC with co-workers or family member. The point is that regardless of whether we're talking about an office PC or your personal PC, the need to secure and maintain your privacy is more relevant then ever.

At the bare minimum, you might want to disable either all of or at least some of the features of the AutoComplete. You can change these settings in Internet Explorer by following these steps:

  1. On the Internet Explorer Tools menu, click Internet Options.
  2. In the Internet Options box, click the Content tab, and click the AutoComplete button. The AutoComplete Settings box will appear.
  3. To turn AutoComplete on, click the boxes next to the types of information you want AutoComplete to remember. For example, you can click the "Web addresses" box if you want AutoComplete to find quick matches for the Web sites that you type into the Internet Explorer Address Bar.

    When you click an empty box, a check mark will appear to let you know that you have chosen to have AutoComplete remember that type of information.

  4. If you don't want AutoComplete to remember usernames and passwords, you can uncheck the box for User names and passwords on forms Tip: You can erase any usernames and passwords that Internet Explorer has already remembered by clicking the Clear Passwords button.
  5. When you're done choosing your AutoComplete settings, click OK twice.

While this is better then nothing, it still leaves you open to other vulnerabilities. My advice is to invest in a strong piece of privacy software designed to eliminate exactly the type of information we're talking about here. They dig much deeper into your system and actually write new data (multiple times) in the same space that the previous data occupied. This makes it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to recover what was there.

When choosing a program to protect your private information you should look at many different aspects to ensure the software you choose will provide proper protection. Below are the criteria you should use to evaluate privacy-protection software.

Ease of Use — Privacy software should be simple to navigate so anyone can successfully use the program regardless of his or her computer knowledge.

Ease of Installation/Setup — Software ought to be easy to install with straightforward instructions, few steps and without causing computer errors.

Privacy Effectiveness — The privacy program should be a valuable tool in keeping all of your personal information safe and out of reach of others, whether they access your computer directly or through the Internet.

Feature Set — Privacy software should offer all of the features needed to keep your information private. Some of these features include browser cleaning, windows cleaning, deleting unwanted cookies, deletion overwrite and deleting Web site browsing history.

Help/Documentation— The manufacturer should offer ample help and technical support in the form of e-mail, phone support or live chat so that you can easily get answers to questions.

The best way to discover which products will meet these criteria is to look for reviews of the products you're interested in from publications such as Small Business Computing and Practically Networked. If available, you should also download a trail version of the program to evaluate it for yourself. To point you in the right direction, here are a couple of recommendations.

Evidence Eliminator is one of the best products on the market and automatically wipes out every trace of your online activities. It is a smart and thorough product that cleans not only your browser, but your registry and swap disk as well. It also wipes lists (kept by Windows) of files viewed, and it even lets you clear movies viewed in Windows Media Player. A single-user license sells for $149.95.

If you are looking for a less expensive cleaner, Webroot Software Inc. offers Window Washer 6.0. Window Washer is almost as effective as Evidence Eliminator at erasing your tracks, but only cost $40 bucks. A free trial is also available.

A word of caution: I highly recommend you have a complete backup of your data before attempting to use either of these products. Until you get comfortable using them and know first hand how they work you should be extremely cautious to not accidentally blow away anything you might need. A program like this is a double-edged sword. Once something gets removed, it's not coming back.

With privacy software on your side, you'll feel secure knowing that your privacy is protected from prying eyes.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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