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Troubleshooting Q&A - October 6, 2004

How to Cover Your Web Tracks

If your Web surfing has taken you to places you'd rather not have your boss (or anyone else for that matter) know about, here are some techniques and some products that can help you erase the trail.

By Ron Pacchiano

Q. The other day, my boss, who was visiting from our California office, asked if he could use my notebook to check his e-mail. Naturally, I said yes. As soon as he started to type in the address of his mail server, up came a list of some of my personal Web sites. I have to admit that many of those sites have no business being viewed or used in the office. He mentioned something to me in a kind of joking manner, but there was definitely an undertone of "don't be using company equipment for these types of activities."

This got me thinking that if he could so easily stumble upon such sensitive information accidentally, then what would someone find if they were actually searching for damaging or incriminating evidence on me. So I wanted to know two things: First, is there anyway for me to stop Windows from automatically showing a list of sites I've been to when entering a Web address? Second, what steps can I take to prevent a similar situation from being repeated in the future? I appreciate any assistance you can offer me. Thanks.

A. Well, the first thing I would recommend is to never use a company computer for anything that might be looked upon badly (e.g., adult and gambling Web sites) — particularly at the office. Forgetting the "politically correct" aspect of it, the fact is you don't own that machine and the company has every right to review the data on it whenever it wants.

In terms of what tracks you are leaving, you should know the following: The way that most browsers work is that when you first visit a site it downloads all of the graphics visible on it into a temporary storage location on your system. This is done to speed up page-loading times on your next visit. Because of this, your hard drive has literally every questionable image you've ever viewed stored somewhere on it. This means if someone knows where to look, all of your dirty little secrets won't be a secret any longer.

To make it easier for you, Web browsers also have the capability to recall a list of all of the Web sites you've visited just by typing the first few letters of the site into the address bar. This is known as the AutoComplete function. It's designed to save time, but if you have visited, let's say, "www.lovelyladies.com" and someone uses the computer after you and wants to go to www.lycos.com, the moment they type in "www.l" the browser will auto-suggest www.lovelyladies.com, which I don't think you'd want.

So if you insist on using this PC for your personal browsing, then you might want to consider seriously taking the time to cover your tracks. There are two methods available to you, depending on how secure you want to be: The first would be to delete any damaging trails manually. It takes some time, but to the casual user, you'll be clean. However, if you're afraid that your company's IT department might confiscate your PC and use what they find on there as grounds for dismissal, then you might consider investing in a good piece of anti-tracking software.

Worth Paying for ...
Considering the first incident, my advice would be to check out Evidence Eliminator. Evidence Eliminator is one of the best products on the market today and automatically wipes out every trace of your online activities. It's a very smart and thorough product that cleans not only your browser, but your registry and swap disk as well. It also wipes lists kept by Windows of files viewed and it even allows you to clear movies viewed in Windows Media Player. Evidence Eliminator is available online here http://www.evidence-eliminator.com/process.d2w?g=10965605589205 and cost about $75 for a single user license.

If you are looking for a less-expensive cleaner, Webroot Software Inc. offers Window Washer v5.5. Window Washer is almost as effective as Evidence Eliminator at erasing your tracks, but cost only $40. A free trial is also available. More information on Window Washer can be found here.

A word of caution: I would highly recommend that you have a complete backup of your data before attempting to use either of these products. Until you get comfortable using them and know first hand how they work you should be extremely cautious to not accidentally blow away anything you might need. Programs like this are a double-edge sword. Once something gets removed, it's not going to be coming back.

Self-Cleaning Has Its Limits
If you do insist on doing it yourself then here are a few steps you can perform to help preserve your anonymity. For starters, disable AutoComplete. In Internet Explorer, this can be turned off by going to the Tools menu and choosing Internet Options. Then choose the Content tab from the dialog box that pops up and click the AutoComplete button. Uncheck the Web Addresses box and click OK. I would also clear the forms and passwords option.

Next, you'll what to clear out the images and your current list of visited Web addresses. Open Internet Explorer, click on the Tools menu and select Internet Options. This will display a dialog box. Under the section Temporary Internet Files click the Delete Files button. This will remove all of those cached images stored on your hard drive. You should also remove any Cookies stored on your system. A cookie is basically a small file sent to your browser by visited Web sites to keep track of your on-line sessions.

Cookies are particularly useful when you want a Web site to auto-sign you into a registration process. However, Web sites also use cookies to track you through the site. Web site shopping carts use them for this purpose. To clear them just press the Delete Cookies button. Finally, to erase visited web addresses so that they don't appear in the address pull down menu at the top of the browser, click the Clear History button.

Deleting this information should be enough to protect you from the casual snoop, but don't think for a moment thing that you are 100 percent safe. Any of the Web pages, pictures, movies, MP3s or whatever could be recovered by someone if they are really motivated and have the proper tools. Depending on how damaging you think that would be to you, you really might want to consider purchasing one of the applications we mention earlier. They dig much deeper into your system and actually write new data (multiple times) in the same space that the previous data occupied — making it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to recover what was there. So remember, spending a little money now could save you a lot of time, money and embarrassment in the future. Hope everything works out for you!


Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we’ll consider them all.



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