Security matters: Control online privacy, security

These days, the only real way to ensure that you have online privacy is to take action and stay engaged before, during and after you are online. For many of us, that means “all the time.”

By now, most Facebook and Twitter users know to keep their profiles private and to not publish their class schedules or information on their whereabouts.

Even posting or tweeting about a party is enough to tell some online “friends” that your apartment or dorm might not be occupied. And with GPS technology, it won’t be uncommon for “friends” to soon be able to tell exactly where you are or aren’t.

But what about when you are actually online and browsing the Internet or perusing the latest video clip that has gone viral?  If you don’t have your browser privacy parameters set properly and if you don’t run several clean-up utilities daily, your online “comings and goings” may not be as private as you think.

If you haven’t taken the time to control the way your browser handles web or browser cookies, odds are there are many websites and organizations that know where you’ve been browsing.

Many websites use cookies to track web browsing behavior (much like some companies use sensors under the carpet to track how and where consumers walk through their stores.) And, if someone is “sniffing” the network, particularly on unencrypted public Wi-Fi networks, cookies can be intercepted and read by others.

Worse yet, cookies can be tampered with and such cookie poisoning can be used to make an online attack persistent. Then again, you may actually like the way some websites use this data. Some websites use cookies to remember your preferences and others use them so you don’t have to log back in the next time you visit.

On the other hand, if you don’t like the idea of websites maintaining a profile of your browsing habits, what’s a digital native to do?

If you have a Windows system, you may already run Disk Cleaner and Disk Defragmenter regularly. However, if you really want to clean up after yourself, you may want to download CCleaner.exe from Piriform.com (unfortunately, the download actually takes place from FileHippo.com).

CCleaner is freeware that can remove unused files from your system, allowing Windows to run faster and freeing up valuable hard disk space. It also can clean traces of your online activities, such as your Internet history and local shared objects, or flash cookies.  Additionally, it contains a registry cleaner.

Another piece of free software that cleans off your Windows system nicely is Privacy Mantra from codeode.com. It is a little more technical and detailed to set up than CCleaner, but it also does a great job.

Mac users may want to take a look at the Safari browser extension called Safari Cookies (available from safariaddons.com). Like CCleaner and Privacy Mantra, it will remove non-favorite cookies, including flash cookies, when you quit Safari.

Firefox users may want to consider adding on “Better Privacy,” which also removes regular and flash cookies when you close the browser.

Unfortunately, installing these additional pieces of software onto your computer may be necessary if you truly want to browse anonymously or if you don’t like the idea of others being able to tell where you’ve been online.

Note that neither UK nor the author make any implied or expressed warranty about the aforementioned software. Like all downloads, if you decide to use any of the aforementioned software, do so with caution and at your own risk.

Jan. 28 is Data Privacy Day. See dataprivacyday2011.org for additional information.

If you have questions about computer security or have ideas for future topics, please feel free to contact me at Michael.Carr@uky.edu.

Michael Carr is UK’s Chief Information Security Officer. Email opinions@kykernel.com.