BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2007

  

 

BOOT CAMP 472 (17/04/07)

Paranoia and Privacy

 

Do you ever get that feeling you are being watched? Well, if you use Windows 95, 98, SE, ME, 2000 and Vista you most certainly are as most recent and all current versions of Internet Explorer (and some other browsers) secretly stores the address of every website you’ve ever visited.

 

It gets worse. Identity theft from computers is rarely out of the news these days and the daily deluge of Spam, viruses, Trojans, spyware and hackers trying to get inside your PC are enough to put you off owning a computer but is it really as bad as it seems?

 

It’s easy to get paranoid about these things but none of this is new and provided you take a few simple precautions and install some readily available, (and free) software, your PC will be as safe as it is possible to be. And yes, I know Mac and Linux are largely immune to this sort of nonsense, but us Windows users will not be beaten, we’re made of tougher stuff and enjoy a challenge...

 

We’ll start this week with the somewhat worrying news that anyone who has access to your computer, and armed with little inside information, can easily find out which websites you’ve been visiting. Now you may think you’ve got this one pegged and by clicking a few buttons in your browser you can erase the ‘History’ file that stores details of recently visited websites. As indeed you can, and in Internet Explorer 6 and 7 you can go to Tools > Internet Options and select the General tab and there you will find the Clear History button, and if you are worried you might like to set ‘Days to keep pages in History’ to zero, and the cache will be emptied when you exit Internet Explorer. There’s a similar option in Firefox listed under Tools > Options Privacy (or press Ctrl + Shift + Delete and select which items you want to delete). However, what you may or may not know is that there’s a second secret, hidden and protected file that cannot be deleted by any normal means.

 

It, or rather they are called index.dat (on most PCs there may be a dozen or more index.dat files) and the ones generated by Internet Explorer have been a favourite topic for PC conspiracy theorists for the past decade, ever since it first appeared in Internet Explorer 4. Index.dat files are databases and the official line is they’re used to speed up web page loading and search queries, which is fair enough but the fact is they are hidden and protected and without specialist knowledge or software, very difficult to erase. Many regard this as a invasion of privacy and the story goes that the file’s somewhat odd behaviour was at the request of the FBI, to assist in the detection and conviction of criminals, terrorists and so on, who for some inexplicable reason continue to believe that computers, the Internet and emails are in any way private or secure.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter the fact remains these files exist and if you are at all concerned about your privacy you should find out what information your computer is storing. The easiest way to do that is with a small freeware utility called Index Dat Spy. This seeks out all of the index.dat files on your PC (it found 71 of them on my main work PC) and allows you to peek inside and see what’s there. This very simple and easy to use program doesn’t actually let you delete or modify the contents of your index.dat files, to do that you need to resort to some simple tricks, or another piece of free software.

 

To manually delete your index.dat files you first need to know where to look for them – and this is something Index Dat Spy can do for you as it lists the file locations. Next you have sidestep Windows file protection. There are various ways of doing that and the easiest one is to start your PC in Safe Mode, which temporarily disables file protection. To enter Safe Mode repeatedly press the F8 key after switch on.

 

However, that method can be quite laborious, especially if you have a lot of index.dat files to deal with so it’s best left to more advanced users. The absolute simplest way to take care of your index.dat files, and all of the other potentially private, personal (or embarrassing) information your PC is storing is to use a program called CCleaner (Crap Cleaner to its friends)

 

CCleaner does much else besides zapping index.dat files. It cleans up Internet Explorer Temporary Files, cookies, URL History and AutoComplete Forms. It also deletes Temporary files, history and cookies in Firefox and Opera, clears the Windows Recycle Bin, Recent Documents, Temporary Files and Log Files. It removes Temporary files and Most Recently Used (MRU) lists in MS Office and many third-part applications (Media Player, Kazaa, WinZip, Adobe Acrobat, Google Toolbar and many more) and there’s a built in Registry cleaner. If you have any concerns about your privacy then you should download and run CCleaner at least once a week, or as often as you think necessary.

 

Next Week – Paranoia and Privacy, part 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

CACHE

Part of a computer's memory or disc space set aside for storing frequently-used data, speeding up file access or the transfer of information

 

COOKIES

Small text files stored on a PC by web sites that can contain a wide range of data such as preferences and personal information

 

URL

Uniform Resource Locator – another name for an Internet address, e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/digitallife/index.jhtml

 

 

TIP OF THE WEEK

In case you still have any illusion that your web surfing activities are in any way private, then you should know that a detailed record of every web site you visit is kept by your Internet Service Provider. Your browser also delivers up a variety of information about your PC to any website that asks for it. This includes the type of operating system, the browser you are using and your current IP Address. It is a relatively easy matter for web site owners to backtrack on the data and at the very least find out the name of your ISP, pinpoint your location to a town or city anywhere in the world and even find out the last website you looked at or linked from

 

 

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© R. Maybury 2007, 1104

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