Privacy on the Internet really falls into four distinct groupings
- PC Privacy: Nearly everything you do on your computer leaves some sort of trail.
- Activity logs: Web pages are stored in hidden files called “caches” so that the next time you visit a site, it loads faster. Lists of the page addresses you have visited are stored in history files. Cookie trails can also give away information about where you have been. These are the areas most people are vulnerable. It is quite easy for spouses and co-workers to access this information without any special tools. While it IS possible to remove these records yourself, it is a multi-step process that you must perform after each session. Thankfully, there are a number of products on the market that will erase your tracks. Some are quite expensive – don’t believe those pop-up ads that claim you are already being investigated and that you must take action immediately – they are the worst kind of scare-tactic spam. There are some very effective products from reputable companies, at better prices as well. Check out QuickClean at Tiger Direct. (or QuickClean as part of the McAfee Antivirus Package with a rebate)
- File remnants: Files that you have downloaded and deleted are also accessible to a professional with the right tools. The same holds true for most email you have sent or received. Emptying the recycle bin does not truly delete a file, it only changes some entries in an operating system table so it does not appear in listings – the data is still on the disk. What you need to address these issues is software that encrypts the files you wish to keep, and shreds the records of files you have deleted. QuickClean also takes care of these remnants.
- Server Privacy: As you use the internet, there are many ways that companies can peek in on you, collect usage information, and build logs.
- Spyware: Some applications or plug-ins have hidden software called spyware. Kazza, Gator, and to a lesser extent many media players, track all the places you visit and combine that data with other peoples to sell statistics about general computer use. Some programs go a step further and keep information about you individually to sell or to change the way they place ads on your computer. These programs not only invade your privacy, but they also slow down your computer for other activities. An excellent free tool to detect this kind of software is Ad-Aware by Lavasoft. If you want a more commercial product for corporate use, use McAfee Antivirus Package, which has a spyware checker built in.
- Information Collection: Many web sites ask for personal information for membership or other benefits. By US law, these sites should give you an option to “Opt Out” of any mailing list collection. Be careful when you give your email address or any other personal information. Always look for checkboxes with descriptions such as “Share your information with selected partners” or “Send you special offers”. Be careful to read the descriptions closely, as many sites use reverse wording such that an unchecked box is agreement to their terms.
- Other tracking: Since you have a unique number (IP address) every time you use the internet, it is possible to track usage back to you individually. Your ISP may be obligated to keep records of who used what IP addresses for what periods of time.
- Web sites (as well as FTP and other sites) often log the IP addresses of computers that connect to them. Putting these two pieces of information together lets companies as well as official authorities trace activity directly to you. One way to get around this is through a Proxy Server. A proxy server is basically a computer that you connect to and forward commands to so that it does the surfing and connecting to other servers for you, and forwards the data back to you. Provided the proxy server does not keep logs of who it connects to what, your identify can be protected this way. Because you are effectively funneling bandwidth through someone else’s network and servers, you typically must pay a monthly or annual fee to use a proxy server service.
- The oldest and most respected proxy server service in the industry is Anonymizer.
This is a great service, because your IP is hidden from every site you visit – they only see the Anonymizer’s IP address. So it is impossible for web site owners to track you back to your ISP.
- Usenet privacy: When you connect to a Newsgroup Server, the provider may log your IP address and keep a log of what files you messages you have downloaded.
- Anonymous reading – While free speech rules in the US generally allow you to read any type of message, there are a few categories of content that are prosecutable. It is possible for the authorities to request a Newsgroup providers logs to try to identify persons who have downloaded files from newsgroups that focus on illegal content. While the connection to the server is typically not enough to prosecute a person, it could be enough to request a search warrant. Most ISPs do track newsgroup usage by user. Most of the third party usenet newsgroup server providers in our review table do not. If this is important to you, carefully check the providers web site for their rules.
- Anonymous posting – While it is obvious that posting content that has been deemed illegal could get one in trouble, one can also be prosecuted for posting any sort of copyrighted material as well. One example of this is ALSSCAN, which aggressively went after a number of usenet posters of its copyrighted images. To address this problem, many usenet newsgroup server providers support X header-less message posting. This means that the tracking information usually associated with each individual usenet message is blocked when it is created, so the author cannot be traced. Look for an “A” in the features column of the provider list for vendors that support this feature.