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Staying Virtually Incognito

By Jim Bray

If you're prone to paranoia, or big on conspiracy theories, the prospect that Big Brother may be watching your every move in cyberspace is sure to have you tearing out your hair.

There's good reason for this worry, too. Plenty of reasons, in fact. After all, whether you realize it or not, whenever you surf the Internet someone or something is trying to get a handle on who you are and how they can exploit it.

There are simple assaults on your privacy, like those “cookies” that many web sites inflict on your computer when you surf by (we don't, by the way!). Then there’s important personal information of yours that gets spread through the virtual world every time you make an on-line transaction. Not necessarily financial data, but lifestyle and demographic info.

These aren't necessarily Bad Things, but you should be aware of them. You should also be aware of more potentially insidious tracking tricks, like “Web Bugs” and “Spyware” – digital beasties designed to collect information about you and your Web surfing habits. It's even said that the US government has programs that not only track visitors to web sites they feel are worth monitoring, but can sift through e-mail as well.

Is it any wonder that an increasing number of cybersurfers are getting increasingly concerned that George Orwell may, in fact, be alive and well after all.

Now, I know none of us would ever do anything that would make the government suspicious of us, and it might be hard to imagine a government Overlord concerned with tracking the habits of ordinary citizens, but facts are facts, and Big Government supporters had better get used to the dark sides of the philosophy they espouse.

So what can you do if you just want to keep your corporate or personal information to yourself, if for no other reason than it's no one else's darn business?

You could start with a couple of simple tricks with your Web Browser. To keep cookies away, you can tell your Browser not to accept them, or to notify you that a Web site is trying to set a cookie. In Netscape 4x, you can do this under the “Preferences” settings found in the “Edit” menu. The cookie section is under “Advanced.”

In MSIE 5x it's much more difficult to find the “cookies” setting. It's on the “Security” tab of the “Internet Options” selection of the “Tools” Menu. You have to click on “Custom Level” and scroll down until you find the Cookie section.

You can also refuse to store your personal information in your Browser. You may have to use a stand-alone E-mail program to send mail, rather than using the Browser’s program, but it may be a small price to pay – especially since there are free e-mail programs.

The easiest way to keep your personal information out of cyberspace when making on-line purchases with your credit card is, not surprisingly, not to make them.

For the really frightened, you can actually buy a computer that bills itself as being a fortress.

A Florida company, Compu-King, has introduced a series of PC’s called Kangaroo that it's targeting at the security conscious business or consumer.

Kangaroo Computers are made to order, and the company claims each computer is hacker-proof. Compu-King uses the latest encryption software and tests every computer for privacy leaks before it leaves their, er, pocket.

Kangaroo makes three models, from the entry level “Joey” to the top of the line “Great Grey,” and for the most part they're pretty straightforward. The differences come below the surface, from processors that don't identify their owners to special software that supposedly lets you surf anonymously. Kangaroo also includes encryption programs and a utility it says turns their hard drives into impregnable vaults.

I assume business is really jumping around their place.

That’s all very well and good, but you can have a hacker-proof PC today, and have it hacked tomorrow, so I don't know if all this stuff will keep hackers out of your system for longer than it takes to unpack the box. It's probably better than nothing, though.

In the meantime, it could give you or your company some peace of mind in an on-line age where everyone wants to poke his or her nose into everyone else’s business.

Too bad we even need to think about such things, but such is life in today’s wild and wired world.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006