NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Home Office: Fight for Your Online Privacy
An irate Steve Bass rolls out the big artillery against bad cookies
by Steve Bass, Contributing Editor, PC World, June 2001
Copyright 2001, PC World, reprinted with permission
(click to email author)

The Internet is booby-trapped. Security leaks are pervasive, and violations of consumer and company privacy are commonplace. Folks, people are doing things behind your back, and you don't even know it.

I can hear you asking me, Ed McMahon-like, "How bad is it, Steve-o?" You probably already know that companies track the files you download, the sites you visit, and the things you buy. You may also be aware that free ad-sponsored programs such as PKZip for Windows and GoZilla place hidden files on your PC. Maybe you consider this part of the cost of going online, but do we really understand the threat data collectors pose to our privacy?

That's why I'm writing this column: I'm alarmed, I'm angry, and I'm determined to show you how to protect yourself.

Out of the Web Shadows
The whole privacy issue is about informed consent. Tell me what you're planning to do before you do it, and maybe I'll allow it. But sneak behind my back, and the bits will hit the virtual fan (see June's cover story, "Privacy 2000: In Web We Trust?" http://www.pcworld.com/features/article/0,aid,16444,00.asp).

Cookies are the most common privacy invader, and they're also the easiest for me to control. Web sites begin to store these files on my PC when I first visit, so they can recognize me--along with my Web browsing preferences and maybe my buying history--when I return. I consider these benevolent cookies because they let a Web site remember, say, the DVDs I rented or the dog food I ordered for my pooch.

In the other corner are malevolent cookies used by third parties--such as ad companies like DoubleClick and Avenue A--to track my online travels without telling me. These cookies tell the next site about me (and my dog) so it can greet me with a banner ad pitching a DVD starring Lassie. (What, you thought sites had ESP?)

I rely on two sites to keep up-to-date on cookie innovations. The first of these, Cookie Central (http://www.cookiecentral.com), provides a terrific overview of cookies; the second, Privacy.net, (http://www.privacy.net) steps you through a demo of how ad networks such as DoubleClick collect personal information.

How to Crumble a Cookie
Plenty of programs block cookies, but I have three favorites--all free (and available at PCWorld.com's Downloads: http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/index.asp).

IDcide (http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7090,00.asp) becomes part of your browser and wedges itself between you and advertiser cookies while letting benevolent cookies through. You can reset the utility on the fly to block all cookies prior to visiting an untrustworthy site. Or if you're curious, IDcide can supply tracking details so you can see who's following your browsing. Unfortunately, IDcide doesn't work with Internet Explorer 5.5 yet.

I'm also happy with AdSubtract (http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,7090,00.asp), which stops cookies and blocks bothersome ads. On the downside, AdSubtract stops all cookies except those you choose to accept from up to five Web sites. (A $15 version has unlimited, custom settings and lets you sort ad cookies and trusted-site cookies by giving them different colors.)

The most intriguing of the three programs, though, is Naviscope (http://www.pcworld.com/downloads/file_description/0,fid,6674,00.asp). Like AdSubtract, it stops cookies and ad intrusions. It also throws in a dozen nifty tools to eliminate other Web annoyances, such as sounds, pop-up windows, and blinking text. And it prefetches Web pages to make downloading subsequent pages faster.

That's Not Opportunity Knocking
While you busily number-crunch confidential data for your boss, ne'er-do- wells scan the Net looking for vulnerable computers. I get checked out a dozen times a day, and it's not due to my affable personality. Make your PC undetectable by using ZoneAlarm, an excellent firewall that's free for personal use.

ZoneAlarm is easy to set up, though it asks confusing questions the first time you access the Internet. With your permission, the firewall provides unhindered Net access for your e-mail, browser, antivirus updater, and other chosen programs. But it stops suspect incoming requests, asking for a consultation only at your direction. ZoneAlarm's MailSafe also stopped a Visual Basic script worm from sneaking in through e-mail as I wrote this column. (Note: See PC World's review of the $40 ZoneAlarm Pro version at http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/article/0,aid,18670,00.asp).

There's also lots of information leaving your PC while you surf. Next month I'll tackle ad-sponsored programs, RealPlayer's tricks, and ways to make yourself anonymous. En garde!

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.

This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an International organization to which this user group belongs.

Click here to return to top