NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Home Office: Keep Web Snoops at Bay
Bugs for dinner again?
Steve Bass explains what to do when spies drop by

By Steve Bass, Contributing Editor, PC World, May 2001
Copyright 2001, PC World, reprinted with permission
(click to email author)

Let's say you invite me over for dinner. While you're busy in the kitchen, I'm hiding eavesdropping devices by the TV, next to the mail slot, and under the bed. Once I'm gone, I observe your behavior without your knowing it. You think this is a little far-fetched, right?

Nope, something similar is likely happening right now via your PC. You're going to be ticked off when I describe how companies and individuals trample on your privacy. Rest assured, I know of a few nifty tools to combat these invasions.

A show of hands: How many of you use GoZilla, RealPlayer's RealDownload, PkZip for Windows, or older version of GetRight? Ad-sponsored versions of these and similar programs are often called spyware. Such programs put tracking applets on your PC to manage their ads. Even if you uninstall the programs, the tracking applets may stick around, passing data about your computing habits back to their servers.

For a better understanding of the spying problem, visit Steve Gibson's site (http://www.grc.com) as well as his privacy newsgroups at http://grc.com/discussions.htm. Then grab a copy of LavaSoft's AdAware (http://www.lavasoft.de/) from our Downloads library at http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7423,00.asp This excellent freebie detects, reveals, and removes most spyware applets.

Web Browsers Anonymous
I know an easy way to become invisible to Web sites and protect myself against nasty Web bugs (more on those beauties below). I just raise my privacy shield with Zero-Knowledge's $50 Freedom software (http://www.freedom.net), which routes my e-mail, my Web and newsgroup browsing, and my IRC chats through anonymous servers. A free version is also available which includes a cookie manager, personal firewall, form filler, ad manager, and keyword alert. When you read my Freedom mail or find me on your Web site, you won't get any trace of the real me. For more info on this crucial subject, see last March's Top of the News article, "Hide Your E-Mail Tracks With New Privacy Tool." It's at http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,14930,00.asp

Web bugs are undetectable bits of code planted in e-mail messages, mostly by spammers who send lots of mail simply to verify that e-mail addresses in their possession are valid. Once you view or open a piece of booby- trapped e-mail, a hidden receipt immediately wings its way back to the senders. The bug also lets the senders determine your e-mail address and track you if you surf their site. To see a Web bug in action, go to http://www.mackraz.com/trickybit/readreceipt--and be ready for an unpleasant surprise. Then load the trial version of Freedom (available at our Downloads library), try it again, and watch the bug get blocked. For more facts about Web bugs, visit Richard M. Smith's privacy site at http://www.privacyfoundation.org.

As Private as a Postcard
If you don't think the Net makes theft of financial and other personal data easier, visit the Federal Trade Commission's site on ID theft. (http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft) If you're a victim, call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at 877/438-4338. We provide many details about ourselves to Web sites we visit and in e-mail we send. With the right tools, hackers can view our personal information stored on Web servers and read our e-mail messages over the Internet as easily as they can peruse the morning paper.

I don't keep every e-mail message I send private, but I consider sacrosanct messages to my doctor, CPA, broker, and barber (who keeps my Grecian Formula secrets). I use Sigaba, a program that encrypts my e-mail and embeds a unique key to identify me. The only people who can read the messages are those I send them to. Sigaba is free, easy to use, and unobtrusive once it's configured. The program integrates with my e-mail package's menu bar. When I reply or send a new message, I can encrypt it with a click on the Sigaba icon (see "Sigaba Enhances E-Mail Security" at http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,18038,00.asp)".

To read encrypted e-mail, you must register with Sigaba. (http://www.sigaba.com/) You can avoid installing the program by receiving all of your encrypted messages on the company's Web site. I can use my existing e-mail account, add attachments, and restrict when others can read the messages I send. The service supports most mail programs, but it didn't work with AOL as we went to press.

Excuse me, but I must run. We had some guests over for dinner tonight, and I need to do a quick check for bugs.

Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and runs the Pasadena IBM Users Group. Write to him at steve_bass@pcworld.com. Check PCW's current edition at http://www.pcworld.com/resource/toc/index.asp and sign up for the Steve Bass online newsletter at http://www.pcworld.com/bass_letter.

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