Peek-a-boo privacy. A travelogue on personal privacy management.

By Paula MacKinnon

It’s not paranoia. Okay, maybe it is. It’s certainly not about having something to hide. Maybe that’s not true either. But this quiet exchange of information between my computer and anything else it connects to on the Net has captured my attention. Like someone who has just peaked out from under a veil of wool, I just want to know what’s going on.

They’re called cookies and Web bugs and spyware, and they are the minions of the data underground that scuttle about leaving their e-droppings on your hard drive while helping themselves to your personal data — things like your email address, IP and Web history. Granted, these minions aren’t all bad. They help personalize your browsing and save you from having to login to every site where membership requires a username and password. But separating the good from the bad is impossible when you can’t see what’s happening.

Web browsers offer very little in way of privacy management. You can turn your cookies off, but then you can’t benefit from the good ones that save preferences and passwords. Even with cookies disabled, existing cookies will continue to work until you delete them from your system. You can set your preferences to warn you before accepting a cookie. Anyone who has tried this maneuver either quickly turns it off, or is rocking in a corner somewhere with computer barking and balking at every click. So you accept it and let the cookies do what they’re going to do — out of sight, and very soon, out of mind.

Then there are the Web bugs. Also known as clear GIFs, these tiny single pixel electronic tags can let site owners and advertisers — like DoubleClick — secretly track the online behaviour of individual Web surfers for marketing purposes. Web bugs can also be encoded in email messages and linked with an individual’s Web-surfing log. You can’t see them, you don’t know when they are present and they can interact with and collect information from cookies dropped on your computer from the same site.

Privacy management tools help you get some control over who has access to what information on your computer. Not that you have anything to hide, but they can clean your tracks and make it impossible for someone to see where you’ve been on the Web. And they can help sweep your computer clean of any unwanted e-droppings that not only add to the clutter, but also to the unsolicited junk mail that gets directed your way. Hoist your placards and take to the streets, it’s time to exercise some rights.

Privacy.Net Analysis
privacy.net/analyze

Conducts a privacy analysis of your Internet connection to see what information can be collected from your computer when you visit a Web site.

Orby
www.cluborby.com

A free program that allows you to take advantage of P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) to match your privacy preferences to the privacy policy on Web sites. Orby attaches to your Web browser and lets you choose which information you wish to share with sites. You can accept or deny cookies while surfing; decide how, when and where to share your personal information; fill in online forms and registrations with just one click; and store all of your Web site passwords so you don’t have to remember them.

IDcide Privacy Companion
www.idcide.com

This free browser add-on for Internet Explorer protects your privacy by letting you see who may be tracking you and letting you block third-party cookies (for example, DoubleClick) without impairing your browsing experience. If you are being tracked, the program can tell you whether it is the site you are visiting or advertising agencies and profiling companies that are doing it. Privacy Companion currently supports Internet Explorer browsers 4.01-5.01. Versions for Internet Explorer 5.5 and Netscape are in the Beta testing phase.

TopClick
www.topclick.com

Billed as the Internet’s private search engine, TopClick guarantees your personal privacy and will never deliver an unsolicited banner ad and never use cookies or other profiling technologies to build a personal profile on your search requests. The site also offers access to a Privacy Center that provides links to online privacy information and resources including products, research, news and advocacy groups. A private communication service called AllowMail.com is also in the works.

Spy Chaser
camtech2000.net

Some free programs contain spyware or support spyware functions that can continue to function after the program has been deleted from your drive. Spy Chaser lists known spyware programs and lets you check to see if the program you are about to download is going to track your movements for a third-party.

The site also offers other free related programs including CT Cookie Spy, which provides a list of all the cookies on your computer, the date and time they were created, and a link directly to the Web site that put them there.

SpyChecker
www.spychecker.com

Is it freeware or is it spyware? SpyChecker is an online database of known spyware, adware or other Advertising Supported software that installs additional third-party tracking components on your system. The site currently indexes almost a thousand software titles.

Anonymizer
www.anonymizer.com

Anonymizer offers Anonymous Surfing subscriptions that provide complete privacy online. Nobody knows who you are or see where you’ve been.

WinBrush 2001
www.winbrush.com

This shareware program guards your privacy and by cleaning your system of files that can betray your recent activities including document histories, cookies, temporary Internet and application files. An easy-to-use tabbed interface includes pages for Windows, Internet Explorer, Netscape and custom items that allow you to specify folders and use filtering to delete files. WinBrush can be set to automatically clean every hour, day, week, or month.

Burnt Cookies
www.andersson-design.com

A shareware program that works with Internet Explorer to manage cookie files. Burnt Cookies keeps track of changes to the folder where cookies are stored and lets you interactively decide how to handle them, including deleting incoming cookies, adding them to a “Burn List” which automatically deletes them when they arrive, or view existing cookies to decide what you want to do with them.

AdSubtract Pro
www.adsubtract.com

AdSubtract Pro sits in your system tray and blocks ads, cookies, pop-up windows, animations, music and “referrers” that inform Web servers about where you’ve been. The Advanced Cookie manager shows what cookies are already on your computer and highlights Ad Server and online Profiling cookies.

AD-aware
www.lavasoft.de

Search your system for spyware. Ad-aware is a free program that lets you scan your computer for advertising spyware files and references and safely remove them. The program can currently find and remove common ad spyware from Aureate/Radiate, CometCursor, Cydoor, Conducent/Timesink, Flysway, Gator and Web 3000 files.

invisiME
www.invisime.com

InvisiME protects your privacy by giving you an online alias and the ability to pull the plug on unsolicited email. When a Web site asks for personal information, such as e-mail, the site will get your invisiME alias identity, not your personal email. Any email that results from signing up is forwarded through invisiME to your real email account. Each email is tagged telling you which online relationship is responsible for sending it, so you will know instantly if the service you signed up for shared your information with somebody else. And you’ll be able to terminate the relationship — the relationship they had with your invisiME alias. The flow of spam from that source will stop at invisiME, it won’t be forwarded on to your account.

For more on privacy issues and resources, visit the Privacy Foundation online at www.privacyfoundation.org.

Paula MacKinnon is an e-business writer and researcher located in Halifax. She can be reached at paula@istar.ca.

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