How secure is the Internet? The simple answer is that it isn't and everything you read, write, see, hear or say via your PC can be monitored and recorded by anyone with a mind to do so. The Internet is also the main distribution channel for computer viruses and on-line fraud has the potential to become a major problem.

But let's not get paranoid, the Internet is no more vulnerable to snooping and chicanery than a telephone or what comes through your letterbox. Here's another comforting thought. The size, complexity and sheer amount of traffic on the Internet has made casual eavesdropping that much more difficult and less likely that anyone would be interested in what you get up to, unless you are handling sensitive material, or up to no good. Nevertheless, for anyone buying products or services on-line or if you simply want your business to remain private then security, or rather the lack of it, remains an issue.   

The weakest link in the whole chain is your PC, though fears that an Internet connection will make it possible for others to 'hack' into your computer are largely groundless. Unless your stand-alone Windows PC is specifically configured for networking or file sharing there is little or no chance of anyone remotely accessing or interfering with your machine. If they can get to your computer by other means, that's a different story.  Your PC's hard disc holds a wealth of information about what you have been up to on the Internet, as well as copies of all of your incoming and outgoing E-mails.

Internet browsers have what are known as 'caches' and History folders that store web site addresses plus copies of the pages, pictures and documents you have viewed. There's nothing sinister in this; their job is to help you find previously visited web sites and speed up downloads. Caches may also contain small files called 'cookies' planted in your PC by web sites. They are mostly harmless and contain information that the web site uses to tailor a page to suit your browser software or personal preferences, nevertheless they provide an easy to follow paper-trail of where you've been and what you've been looking at. If that is a concern then you should take control of your browser's cache and history files. History and the Internet Explorer cache can both be found inside the Windows directory, Navigator's cache is in the Netscape directory.

You can safely delete any of the files in the cache manually from Windows Explorer and as a bonus recover some hard disc space but be warned that this is not a complete solution and 'ghost' files are left behind that can be found relatively easily. Erasing browser cache files from within DOS is a good first-level defence though the 'deltree' command should only be used by those who know their way around MS DOS and again there are ways and means of recovering deleted files that only specialised software can defeat.

Internet Explorer has a facility to limit the size of the cache and clear the History folder; both can be found under Internet Options on the View menu. On the General tab set 'Days to Keep History' to zero, and on the Settings button under Temporary Internet Files set the slider to minimum. Here are also a number of software utilities that will automatically clear browser cache and history folders; the best known is the 'Paranoia' tool in Tweak UI. Tweak UI is Freeware and is included on the Windows 98 CD-ROM or it can be downloaded from the Microsoft web site (

There is only one sure way to protect E-mails and text files stored on your PC and that is to encrypt them so they cannot be read. Encryption is also the only means to prevent others from reading your messages when they are sent over the Internet, and remember your E-mail could pass through dozens of other computers in many different countries during its journey. Powerful encryption software is readily available in the Internet; one of the best places to start is the Tucows web site (, which contains more than a score of freeware and shareware utilities. This includes the 'international' version PGP or Pretty Good Privacy, which is generally reckoned to be one of the most powerful encryption programs available, so powerful in fact that the American Government classify it as a munition and have gone to considerable lengths to prevent its distribution outside the US. The Tucows site also has some useful file hiding and deletion utilities and cookie zappers, so it is well worth a visit.

On-line shopping and banking has generated a lot of scary headlines but the truth is the risk of fraud need be no greater than buying goods on the phone with your credit card, provided you take a few sensible precautions. Rule number one is to keep your wits about you and avoid dealing with shady-sounding companies in distant lands. If the products or services they are selling seem too cheap to be true, they probably are! Web sites with well-signposted security features, like passwords and secure/encrypted transmission systems inspire a certain amount of confidence and always keep a printout of the order page or form. Credit cards are the safest payment method and card companies provide their customers with protection against fraud. Beware of hidden charges when buying from overseas web-sites. In addition to carriage costs you will almost certainly have to pay UK import duty and VAT on your purchases, and this may well wipe out any savings you might have made.  

Finally, a few words about downloading files from the Internet. Destructive viruses lurking in E-mail attachments and programs are not that common but it pays to be vigilant. Plain text E-mails are safe to open and read but everything else should be treated as suspect and pass through your virus checker, (you have got one, haven't you…? If not you are just asking for trouble!). It's a good idea to create a 'quarantine' folder for all of your downloads, where they can be inspected before opening or unzipping.  

Next week, backup and mass storage   




An attachment is a file -- other than plain text -- sent with or as an E-mail message


Encryption or scrambling renders files unreadable by any conventional means without the correct decryption software and a unique 'key' code, which is needed to unlock the data.


Microsoft Disc Operating System -- core control program that functions alongside Windows, uses text-based 'command lines' to carry out instructions



The Start menu grows at an alarming rate, after a short while it can become too big to fit comfortably on the screen and you have to scroll around to find the application you're looking for. Here is a neat solution and it will help you to organise your programs into categories. Right click on the Start button and select Explore, now go to File and click New to create one or as many folders as you require. Give them names according to program category, such as Internet, Paintboxes, Games, Utilities, Reference, etc. Close the Window and go back to the Start button, right click again and this time select Open. Your new folders will be displayed in the main window; double-click to open each one in turn and drag and drop the relevant program items into the open folder. Close the windows and your new shorter, streamlined Start menu is ready for business.

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