BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2009

  

 

BOOT CAMP 576 (13/05/09) – Privacy and Paranoia, part 2

 

You have every right to be paranoid, and no, you are not imagining it, you are being watched! Everything you do on your PC and every web site you’ve ever visited is being meticulously logged but here’s the twist. I’m not talking about the underhand activities of covert government agencies, shady multinationals or grubby hackers (though they’re all at it as well…), the snooper is much closer to home, and you are looking at it right now.

 

Your computer records almost everything that you do, from the documents and images you’ve opened, to the URL of every website you’ve ever visited, possibly since the day you first switched your PC on. You are probably aware that some of this, at least, goes on. Since Windows 98 all PCs have a Recent Documents or Items list on the Start menu and this shows what you have been up to and is there for anyone who cares to look. You may also know that your browser records web addresses, and you probably don’t mind too much because it is supposed to speed up web searches (it doesn’t, at least not any more…) but the real reason most of us don’t give it much thought is because you can clear these logs with a few clicks of the mouse – see this week’s Top Tip.

 

What you may not know is that behind the scenes Windows maintains a second set of records, but these are kept in hidden and protected log files that cannot be seen or deleted by any normal methods and anyone with access to your computer, and a little inside knowledge, can find out what you have been doing.

 

This is not a new development; I and many others have been banging on about this peculiar feature in Windows for at least the past ten years so it’s hardly a secret. Yet strangely it doesn’t seem to have bothered those who know about it, but now, with almost daily reports of data loss, identity theft and invasion of privacy, perhaps it is time we took notice?

 

Ever since Windows 98 and Internet Explorer 4 details of visited websites have been stored in a file called index.dat. On a typical Windows XP and Vista PC there can be dozens of index.dat files. The official explanation is that storing web addresses is meant to help to speed up web searches and queries. However, it makes little or no difference these days now we have broadband but in any case, it’s already being done by Internet Explorer, in the cache memory, so why do it twice? But what makes this whole business really odd is that there has never been a credible explanation as to why index.dat files are hidden and locked.

 

Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with it and the favourite explanation is that these database files are the result of a secret deal between Microsoft and the FBI.  Whatever the reason you can be sure that index.dat files are of enormous interest to police and security agencies in investigations that involve the seizure of computers and hard disc drives.

 

If you doubt any of this try searching your PC for files called ‘index.dat’. You won’t find any (unless you know a few command line tricks) but even if you do, you won’t be able to edit or delete them. 

 

You don’t have to be a criminal or up to no good to be concerned about your privacy, so what can you do about these nosey files? When the index.dat issue first came to light it didn’t take long for savvy programmers to find ways to delete files and for several years the de facto tool was a little freeware utility called Spider. Sadly Spider didn’t work on XP but a new tool appeared, called Crap Cleaner (now CCleaner) and this does an admirable job of clearing index.dat files in both XP and Vista, and much more besides. It’s free, and safe to use, and you’ll find a link to the download at: http://tinyurl.com/cby7jh.

 

Numerous other cleaners and utilities, including a number of paid-for programs have appeared but most of the ones I’ve seen are no better than CCleaner and certainly not worth paying money for. However, CCleaner is not selective and when you click the Run Cleaner button it zaps everything. This is addressed by another free utility, called Index.dat Analyzer (http://tinyurl.com/cf2zz2 ). This reveals a lot more about what’s stored in your index.dat files, with dates and times, and you can decide which entries to keep and which ones to get rid of. Why you would want to do this I can’t say, but the option is there if you want it.

 

Next Week – Privacy, part 3 Part 1 3 4 5

 

JARGON FILTER

 

CACHE

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

 

COMMAND LINE

A typed instruction, to tell a PC to do something, as opposed to clicking on a menu or icon

 

URL

Uniform Resource Locator - a standard Internet address e.g.: http://www.pctoptips.co.uk

 

 

TOP TIP

To clear your browser’s cache memory or ‘History’ in IE7 go to Tools and select Delete Browsing History and click the items you want to remove. If you are concerned about how long your browser stores information go to Tools > Internet Options, select the General tab and under Browsing History click the Settings button and set ‘Days to keep pages…’ to zero. In Firefox go to Tools > Options Privacy, under Private Data select Settings, decide which items want to delete, click OK then the Clear Now button. To Clear and remove the Recent Documents/Items list in XP right click on the Taskbar, select Properties then the Start Menu tab, click the Customize button, select the Advanced tab and uncheck ‘List my most recently…’ and click the Clear List button. In Vista right click the Taskbar, select Properties then the Start Menu tab, uncheck ‘Store and display a list of recently opened files and click OK.

 

Don't forget, there's a full archive of previous Boot Camp Top Tips at www.pctoptips.co.uk/

 

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© R. Maybury 2009, 0804

 

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