BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2003

  

 

BOOT CAMP 293 (23/09/03)

 

Paranoia part 1

 

An unusually large response to a reader’s query about PC privacy a few weeks ago reminded me that it has been three years since we first looked at this touchy subject and that there is now a whole new generation of PC users, completely unaware that their computers are spying on them.

 

As you know web browsers like Internet Explorer routinely log details of the web sites you’ve visited and the information is clearly shown in browser ‘History’ and if you care to look, in the Temporary Internet Files folder, which stores images downloaded from web sites. You may also know that these files can be purged, but what you may not realise is that details of every web site you have ever visited, possibly since the day you first switched on your computer, is stored in a number of hidden files that cannot be accessed, viewed or deleted by any conventional means.

 

Microsoft has gone to quite extraordinary lengths to hide and protect these files resulting in numerous conspiracy theories, including one widely held belief they were put there at the behest of the FBI. Microsoft has yet to provide a wholly convincing explanation for their inclusion in Windows but whatever their real purpose the fact remains that these files exist and they pose a very serious threat to your privacy.

 

The files that we know about – and there are suggestions that there may be others -- go under the name ‘index.dat’. There are three instances in Windows 98, SE and ME and they can be found in the Registry and in C:\WINDOWS\Temporary Internet Files\Content.IE5 and C:\WINDOWS\Cookies. In Windows XP there are even more of them but the ones that concern us are in the Cookies and UserData folders in C:\Documents and Settings\<yourname> and C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator folders.

 

In addition to storing previously visited web addresses – which is bad enough -- they also contain details of the cookies on your PC, plus information about ‘dynamic’ web pages that are not supposed to be stored on your PC and there is speculation that this data could be used to retrieve passwords.

 

You might be thinking that all this talk of spying and conspiracy theories is a tad dramatic, but see for yourself. First go to the Tools menu in Internet Explorer, select Internet Options and on the General tab click the Delete Files, Delete Cookies and Clear History buttons (assuming that you don’t want to keep this information), and by rights all traces of your recent web activities should have been erased.

 

In fact these actions have no effect on the index.dat files and you can get a partial view of what’s inside by opening them in Word or Excel but for the full story you need to download a viewer utility. Try WinSpy at:

http://www.acesoft.net/winspy/, it’s freeware and works with most versions of Windows and most browsers.

 

What it reveals will probably shock you. Even if you have never intentionally visited a porn site you may have unwittingly been directed to one and it will be shown, alongside all of the other sites you’ve ever accessed, including your bank or building society, on-line shops, Internet searches and probably every other web site you have ever looked at since day one.  This is not rocket science and anyone with suitable software, like WinSpy can see what you’ve been up to, even over a network.

 

The question is what can you do about it? Windows will not let you delete information stored in the index.dat files though in Windows 9x they can be erased in DOS mode using powerful delete commands (see Tip of the Week) but this method is not recommended for novices. The alternative is to run a specialised cleanup program that deletes the contents of these files when the PC is rebooted. There is no shortage of commercial software on the market and companies offering to do the work for you but for the past few years I’ve been recommending an excellent little freeware program called Spider. It’s getting a little long in the tooth now and it doesn’t work with Windows XP but it does the job, though it’s sometimes necessary to run it twice to clear the last dregs. Spider is available from: http://www.fsm.nl/ward/. Freeware cleaners for XP are rather thin on the ground but I have been very impressed with CCleaner (Crap Cleaner) which also works with Windows 9x, and it can be found at http://www.ccleaner.com

 

 

Next week – Paranoia part 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

COOKIES

Small text files stored on your PC by web sites you’ve visited, that can contain a wide range of data including personal details and preferences and information about web sites you have visited

 

DOS

Disc Operating System, a program that runs independently of Windows responsible for controlling disc drives, organising data and memory resources.

 

REGISTRY

A large, constantly changing Windows System files containing details of how your PC is set up and configuration information for all the programs stored on the hard disc

 

 

TIP OF THE WEEK

If you are using Windows 95, 89, SE or ME and IE 5 or 6 and are familiar with DOS you might like to try this simple method of deleting the worst offending index.dat file on your PC. Go to the Start menu and click Shutdown > Restart in DOS Mode and then OK. (In Win ME use your Emergency Startup disc to get into DOS mode). At the DOS prompt very carefully type the following: ‘del c:\windows\tempor~1\content.ie5\index.dat’ (without the quotes)

then press Enter. You should now reboot your PC and Windows will automatically create a new and empty index.dat

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