A few practical ideas for protecting privacy while computing

With all the recent talk about personal information disclosure and the threat of identity theft showing no signs of abating, it’s useful to remember that there are a variety of free tools and routine practices that can help limit the amount of personal or potentially personally identifying information you disclose, especially information you may be revealing unintentionally. Protecting privacy in this vein covers two primary areas: computer clean-up and online privacy.

Computing best practices have long recommended regular maintenance of personal computers that includes removing old or unused or fragmented files, and to remove traces of programs that may have been left behind when the programs were deleted, even when using un-installation features included with the programs. These recommendations have largely been justified in terms of optimizing performance, particularly on Windows operating systems, because too much computer clutter can slow operations. More recently, recommendations of this sort have been cast as security and privacy measures, working to reduce the potential for identity theft and to protect users from computer forensic investigation tools. Some of the freely available tools often recommended for these clean-up activities, such as CCleaner and Eraser, fill one niche need for people looking to dispose of or donate old computers. The increasing frequency with which forensic scanning tools are used has provided another use case for these tools.

The most recent versions of Mozilla Firefox (since v3.5) and Internet Explorer (since v8.0) make it pretty easy to keep evidence of online behavior off client computers, essentially preventing the local storage of much of the information that a utility like CCleaner looks to remove. Removing traces from a computer is a much simpler matter than preventing the disclosure of potentially personally identifiable information, such as IP addresses, when users go online. In this arena most attention is focused on the use of web browsing proxies, which effectively enable anonymous browsing; plug-ins for Firefox and Internet Explorer and Safari are available to add anonymous browsing functionality (generally via proxy) within the browser itself. There are many reasons users seek anonymity while browsing, but the justification for masking identity when surfing online has been strengthened by the increasingly frequent use of online behavior tracking, notably including storage and retention of browsing and search query history by major search vendors such as Google. Partly in response to this trend, anonymous search engines such as StartPage offer private Internet searching, promising specifically that no user IP addresses are logged.

While it is certainly helpful that so many tools and services are available to help maintain digital and online privacy, the overall message remains that the onus is on the user to take steps to limit disclosure of personal information.