BOOT CAMP 293 (23/09/03)
Paranoia part 1
An unusually large response to a reader’s query about PC
privacy a few weeks ago reminded me that it has been three years since we first
looked at this touchy subject and that there is now a whole new generation of PC
users, completely unaware that their computers are spying on them.
As you know web browsers like Internet Explorer routinely log
details of the web sites you’ve visited and the information is clearly shown in
browser ‘History’ and if you care to look, in the Temporary Internet Files
folder, which stores images downloaded from web sites. You may also know that
these files can be purged, but what you may not realise is that details of every
web site you have ever visited, possibly since the day you first switched on
your computer, is stored in a number of hidden files that cannot be accessed,
viewed or deleted by any conventional means.
Microsoft has gone to quite extraordinary lengths to hide and
protect these files resulting in numerous conspiracy theories, including one
widely held belief they were put there at the behest of the FBI. Microsoft has
yet to provide a wholly convincing explanation for their inclusion in Windows
but whatever their real purpose the fact remains that these files exist and they
pose a very serious threat to your privacy.
The files that we know about – and there are suggestions that
there may be others -- go under the name ‘index.dat’. There are three instances
in Windows 98, SE and ME and they can be found in the Registry and in
C:\WINDOWS\Temporary Internet Files\Content.IE5 and C:\WINDOWS\Cookies. In
Windows XP there are even more of them but the ones that concern us are in the
Cookies and UserData folders in C:\Documents and Settings\<yourname> and
C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator folders.
In addition to storing previously visited web addresses –
which is bad enough -- they also contain details of the cookies on your PC, plus
information about ‘dynamic’ web pages that are not supposed to be stored on your
PC and there is speculation that this data could be used to retrieve passwords.
You might be thinking that all this talk of spying and
conspiracy theories is a tad dramatic, but see for yourself. First go to the
Tools menu in Internet Explorer, select Internet Options and on the General tab
click the Delete Files, Delete Cookies and Clear History buttons (assuming that
you don’t want to keep this information), and by rights all traces of your
recent web activities should have been erased.
In fact these actions have no effect on the index.dat files
and you can get a partial view of what’s inside by opening them in Word or Excel
but for the full story you need to download a viewer utility. Try WinSpy at:
freeware and works with most versions of Windows and most browsers.
What it reveals will probably shock you. Even if you have
never intentionally visited a porn site you may have unwittingly been directed
to one and it will be shown, alongside all of the other sites you’ve ever
accessed, including your bank or building society, on-line shops, Internet
searches and probably every other web site you have ever looked at since day
one. This is not rocket science and
anyone with suitable software, like WinSpy can see what you’ve been up to, even
over a network.
The question is what can you do about it? Windows will not
let you delete information stored in the index.dat files though in Windows 9x
they can be erased in DOS mode using powerful delete commands (see Tip of the
Week) but this method is not recommended for novices. The alternative is to run
a specialised cleanup program that deletes the contents of these files when the
PC is rebooted. There is no shortage of commercial software on the market and
companies offering to do the work for you but for the past few years I’ve been
recommending an excellent little freeware program called Spider. It’s getting a
little long in the tooth now and it doesn’t work with Windows XP but it does the
job, though it’s sometimes necessary to run it twice to clear the last dregs.
Spider is available from: http://www.fsm.nl/ward/. Freeware cleaners
for XP are rather thin on the ground but I have been very impressed with CCleaner (Crap Cleaner)
which also works with Windows 9x, and it can be found at http://www.ccleaner.com
Next week – Paranoia part 2
Small text files stored on your PC by web sites you’ve
visited, that can contain a wide range of data including personal details and
preferences and information about web sites you have visited
Operating System, a program that runs independently of Windows responsible for
controlling disc drives, organising data and memory resources.
large, constantly changing Windows System files containing details of how your
PC is set up and configuration information for all the programs stored on the
TIP OF THE WEEK
If you are using Windows 95, 89, SE or ME and IE 5 or 6 and
are familiar with DOS you might like to try this simple method of deleting the
worst offending index.dat file on your PC. Go to the Start menu and click
Shutdown > Restart in DOS Mode and then OK. (In Win ME use your Emergency
Startup disc to get into DOS mode). At the DOS prompt very carefully type the
following: ‘del c:\windows\tempor~1\content.ie5\index.dat’ (without the quotes)
then press Enter. You should now reboot your PC and Windows
will automatically create a new and empty index.dat