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Techno Corner

Arun Marballi

Last month, I addressed the concept of privacy and how this nebulous notion is practically non-existent these days because of the trail of identifiable information that we leave behind everywhere we go. And, this trail of information is not limited to our physical world; it even follows us around like the tail of Haley’s Comet as we traverse through cyberspace and even when using e-mail.

How does this happen on the web, you ask? Well, for one consider the fact that these days many websites require that you sign up with an e-mail address and the website then sends you a password and link to the e-mail address provided to complete the sign-up process. In other words, you have just given to this website operator, and willingly I might add, an identifiable item of information about yourself – your e-mail address. It may, further, surprise you to know that when you visit a website, the site operator can glean a lot of information about you merely by the fact that you visited that website – the website logs will hold a list of the pages you have visited en route to that website as well as your IP address (a set of numbers that act as the unique address for your computer and may be traceable back to your computer/router!) Further, the browser also has informed the website about itself and your computer’s operating system. The website operator also can detect the versions of software components installed on your computer, your preferred language setting and the link you clicked to get to the website. All of this regardless of the firewalls that you may have erected and routers that you may have placed between your computer and cyberspace!

Websites sometimes also use what are called persistent cookies. These are small software objects that websites install on your computer. They do this for many purposes – some above board like providing you with a consistent customized experience by remembering your settings and choices and others somewhat questionable such as for tracking your web activities to target advertising. Have you ever wondered how you suddenly get bombarded with pop-up car advertisements merely by visiting a website like Edmunds? Now you know! It’s those cookies on your computer.

So how can you surf the web anonymously and avoid all this exposure? There are many techniques that enable you to do this but they do involve going a little out of your way. One of the most efficient ways is to use an anonymous forwarding web service (much like a post-office box) that takes your request and then sends out a separate request in your behalf from one of their servers. After the website has replied, the forwarding service turns around and returns the response back to you – kind of like a relay. This technique not only hides your IP address but also prevents the visited website from installing cookies or gathering any information from your computer. The oldest web service that provides this type of service is the Anonymizer ( This has recently become a paid subscription service. A free web service that provides similar features is aptly named The Cloak ( I know all this sounds like a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff, and perhaps it is. After all if your activities on the internet are all above board, what is the harm in letting a website record your IP address? Does traceability really matter – so long as it is limited to just that, traceability?

Another option which I think is a lot more meaningful (and I like the idea) is to use a more recent technology called virtualization. In this technique, you run a virtual machine on your computer using software such as VMware Workstation and do all cyber-surfing from inside the virtual machine. All cookies, spyware and viruses stay in this virtual machine and are destroyed when the virtual machine is shut down leaving your computer untouched. The downside of this method is that it does not hide your IP address or any information sent by your browser and my earlier comment about traceability applies here as well. Software such as VMWare Workstation are primarily targeted for IT professionals and set up could be a little overwhelming for casual users – I would suggest seeking the help of an IT professional to set this up.

If you don’t want to use Virtualization, then you should at a minimum take steps to avoid cookies. To do this, adjust the cookie management level of your internet browser to a level that best suits your purposes. This can be done from the Privacy page of the Internet Explorer browser Options where each option setting is described for your convenience and understanding. Finally, the easiest way to avoid long-term exposure to cookies is to clear them on a regular basis from your computer by going to your Internet Browser Options and clicking the Delete button in the Browsing History section of the General Page.

There also are a couple of low-tech solutions for maintaining a modicum of privacy on the net. One way is to refuse to divulge any personal information such as your e-mail address to a website. Another way is to take a look at the service provider’s Privacy Policy before signing up for any service. For instance, if you are using Google’s gmail service, did you know that you have agreed to extensive data mining on the e-mail messages that you send and receive with the gmail service? Now, how does that sound for privacy!

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 20 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail


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