Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cookies and Your Privacy

The recent controversy surrounding the NSA has brought to light many of the unsolved issues concerning the Internet, privacy, and homeland security.  However, while the idea that the federal government might be spying on us on our computers might sound a bit 1985-ish, not only is it plausible, but it actually should be expected.

I'm not going to get into a discussion about what the NSA has or hasn't done and whether it's right or wrong, because this blog is about security, not moral and political debate.  However, I will tell you that the Internet is a lot of things, but "private" is not one of them.  Big Brother has probably had access to your Internet information for a long time—and they're not the only ones.

Cookies

I want you to think of a rather peculiar word for this topic of conversation: "cookie".  Yes, this is a technological term, and it refers to something far different on the Internet than in the bakery.  An Internet cookie is a file that keeps record of certain information relating to your activity on the Internet.

Again, sounds like something straight out of a George Orwell novel.  However, before you begin freaking out, know that cookies aren't always bad.  In fact, they were originally developed to make the use of the Internet more convenient for you.  For example, cookies are the reason the computer can "hold" items in your shopping cart when you're shopping online.  They're also the reason your computer "remembers" your passwords so you don't have to log into your online accounts every time you visit.  Some cookies also help certain web pages to load faster, and they're responsible for keeping track of your browsing history so you can easily access pages you visited a few hours, days, or even weeks ago.

However, the use of cookies has its drawbacks.  First and foremost, while some cookies are coded to delete themselves after a certain period of time, many remain on your hard drive long after they've been used.  And when new ones are created on your computer, rather than replacing the old ones, they only add to them.  Over time, cookies can take up a ton of space on your hard disk.  (For the technologically-minded: on some especially messy computers, "a ton" can be in the gigabytes.  No kidding.)

In addition to clogging up your disk, cookies also store information relating to you, your computer, and what you do on the Internet.  Some websites use cookies to track your Internet activity (hence their alternate name, tracking cookies).  They do this primarily so that they can show you relevant advertisements based on your most-visited websites, Google searches, etc.  But it's still kind of creepy.

And finally, it's not uncommon for hackers to either steal cookies to gain information or write their own tracking cookies to gather and report back information to them.  Tracking cookies, for the kind of information they might obtain, may or may not be picked up by your antimalware, depending on the product you have.  However, there are still ways you can get rid of cookies and other programs that are so nervy to take up space on your disk while tracking your information.

1) Delete Your Browsing History/Modify Settings

This article from eHow gives instructions on how to delete your browsing history on the three most commonly-used browsers: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome.  (Note: on Internet Explorer, the "Ctrl-Shift-Del" hotkey works.  In addition, to prevent certain websites from storing cookies in the future, uncheck the top box that says "Preserve Favorites Website Data".)

The process of clearing out your browser might take a while, depending on how many cookies you currently have on your computer.  It would be wise to get into the habit of clearing your history every time you exit your browser, or you could configure your browser to do the same thing by going into your Internet settings (which can usually be found under "Tools", "Options", etc.).

2) Use a hard-drive cleaning utility

Unfortunately, clearing your history doesn't get rid of all the cookies on your computer, and it doesn't prevent all websites from creating cookies in the future.  Your operating system probably includes a hard drive cleaning tool that might get rid of certain temporary files and cookies, but I personally feel CCleaner does a better job.  However, CCleaner can be kind of aggressive, and you really should know what you're doing when you use it.  I'll be covering CCleaner in a future entry, but for now stay away from third-party cleaning programs.


That's all for now.  The next entry will probably be about CCleaner.  Again, if you have any questions or requests for future topics, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.  My email address is ladypakenham(@)gmail.com.  I have not gotten any requests yet, which is fine considering I just started this.  However, ultimately this blog will only be able to survive through user participation; otherwise I'm just rambling to myself (and I already do plenty of that on my other blog).  :-)

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