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
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
Part of a
computer's memory set aside for storing frequently-used data, speeding up file
access or the transfer of information
instruction, to tell a PC to do something, as opposed to clicking on a menu or
Resource Locator - a standard Internet address e.g.: http://www.pctoptips.co.uk
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/
© R. Maybury 2009, 0804