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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1997

Privacy on the PC

Bill Husted

Learning to erase your footprints on the Information Highway

Cox News
Most of us live quiet and humdrum lives with very little to hide. But we still pull our shades at night.

So I’m not suggesting you have anything to hide when it comes to using your computer. But — all the same — let’s spend some time talking about how to make it a little more difficult for someone to invade your privacy.

Let’s start with passwords. You may have several of them: One for an Internet provider, one for the machine at work and perhaps a password for Prodigy, CompuServe or America Online. Think of your password as the key to the lock that keeps outsiders out.

Most newcomers try to come up with a password that is easy to remember. But those kind of passwords — the name of a family member, or the digits from your telephone number or birthday — are the easiest to guess.

Make things a little more difficult by using a password that includes both letters and numbers. It’s a good idea to stay away from words found in a dictionary.

Some hacking programs use an electronic dictionary and literally try every word in the book in an attempt to break into your Internet account.

Next, you need to know you leave electronic footprints when you travel in cyberspace.

Want to see some right now? If you use Netscape to navigate the Internet’s World Wide Web, look in your Netscape directory for a file called NETSCAPE.HST.

Now use your word processor to open that file. You’ll find it contains a complete listing of every Web page you’ve visited. Most of us won’t care that this information exists.

And, after all, the file resides safely on your own computer.

But if you do care, here’s what you can do about it. Delete the file. Netscape will work fine without it.

But did you know that many Web sites also keep a record of who visited them. The information that is automatically captured at the site can include the kind of computer you own, your e-mail address and the page you visited before that page.

If you’d like a demonstration of what a remote computer can see, go to a page called Anonymous Surfing at Just use the link at the bottom of the page and you’ll get a report of the sort of information your computer blabs.

Again, that probably won’t concern most of us. If it does, there is a way to surf anonymously. Just go to Anonymizer at Enter the address for the page you want to visit. Now you won’t leave a record behind on the pages you visit.

Some folks don’t even like to reveal their identity when sending e-mail. If that sounds like you, visit Anonymous E-mail at There are links from that page to several places that will forward your e-mail anonymously at no charge.

If all this talk of secrecy has set you into a wild fit of deleting personal files from your computers and floppy disks, remember: Deleted files don’t go away automatically.

Several utilities, including one called UNDELETE that came with some of the last editions of MS-DOS and a utility called UNERASE from Norton Utilities, can restore them.

For those who worry about stuff like this, Norton Utilities — among other companies — sells a program that really erases a file.

Look, it’s fine with me if you keep your drapes open at night. I just wanted to tell you someone may be looking.

Reprinted with permission, The Atlanta Constitution, © 1996