Computing Tips 2 (Security and Privacy Online)
* UPDATE * 17th October 2013
I have an important addition to the article below. The amount of websites that track you and share information is huge. I have been alerted to a simple way to have the tracking options disabled by default by installing a simple browser addon. I used DoNotTrackMe which has been happily alerting me to the sites that want to track me and automatically disabling this function unless I specify otherwise! Its so satisfying but better than that, web pages load faster as they do not need to transfer all the tracking data!
Here is the rest of the article as originally written, but please do not rely on tools like shown above to do all the work for you, It is better to adopt a sensible security and privacy approach than to be careless and rely on something to do it all for you.
Whenever you visit a webpage, perhaps without realising it you have already given a lot of information. Your IP address, browser and Operating System information, even the last webpage you visited is passed to each website that you visit automatically
CLICK HERE TO SEE THIS INFORMATION. (note: the referer page will probably show this page!)
The IP address is your unique address on the internet and is a series of numbers seperated by dots. This is required as the website you are visiting needs your IP address to know where to send the webpage back to! The IP address reveals who provides your internet Service (BT, Virgin etc.) but also gives a good idea of your geographical location depending on the ISP server being used.
Your browser and Operating system information is gleaned from the user_agent value that is passed to the website in order to retrieve the webpage. This can allow websites to offer reduced graphic versions for mobile devices for example so it can be beneficial.
The previous page you visited is also sent to the website automatically as a referer value, this is for websites to be able to track where their visitors are coming from (a google search for example), but you might not want that information to be passed! For modern browsers with multiple tabs and windows, this value may not be passed if you open a new tab or window for example, but I would not rely on this unless you are sure! One way to help prevent this referer value being passsed is to cut & paste or type out the address of the webpage you want to visit in a fresh browser window, (Also see Multiple Web Browsers).
Now at this stage you might think, so thats not personal, I don’t mind anyone knowing that information, but that is just the start. Once you start entering information on various websites, the information is all stored and monitored and is just waiting to be cross-referenced and analysed in any way you can think of.
Before I go any further with this, let me acknowledge that there are rules to be followed and much statistical type information is not allowed to be shared on an individual basis.So for example, google can advise how many people use their websites, the most popular operating systems, the most popular browsers, which ISPs etc.When it comes to individual information, there are restrictions on what can be shared but my point is that all this is possible, more to follow on this…
Web Search Engines
First we need to realize that search engines have to make their money somehow. If it were just from the paid adverts that appear at the top and down the side of search results then that would be one thing, but increasingly this is being combined with data ‘harvesting’ activities that also combine other data form social media etc. to track your internet movements (See also Tips & Tricks – Mulitple Web Browsers). If you have a paid Adwords Account (Google Search Advertising) for example, you can log in and set your preferences as to your preferred location and demographic as well as types of locations where your ads appear (just on regular google searches or on their Display Network (specialist websites, forums, social netorking etc.). That sounds great but hang on a sec – how do they get this info? Well as I said earlier, much of it is gleaned from your computer automatically but they also use an array of other techniques.
If you dont want google harvesting your searches, try using Startpage.com. It still returns the results from google but it goes through their servers so that google does not get to any of your information. Startpage even promise not to store your IP address!
Multiple Web Browsers
If you like the idea of keeping your private browsing and social browsing separate, remember that all the web browsers you already have installed will already have a browsing history and cookies etc. stored. Only a fresh browser install will allow you a clean slate with this (Clearing all cookies and browsing history MAY have the same effect, but a brand new browser install is more assured). But beware! Just logging into a facebook account or similar on that (NEW) browser may be enough for all the browsing activity on that browser to start being logged and become part of the data swamp that they are compiling on your browsing activity.
TIPS & TRICKS
Virtual Machines (VirtualBox, Qemu etc.)
A virtual machine is a computer being emulated by another computer. This means that you can have a computer with Windows installed and you can then run another operating system like Linux inside a virtual machine just like it is another application program. The power of this is tremendous. Rather than explain too much I will give you and example.
Jack has a computer with Windows installed. It tends to crash a fair bit and he has heard Linux is a great alternative but he is too afraid to try it. He downloads VirtualBox and installs it. He then downloads a DVD image of Mint Linux. When he runs VirtualBox, he follows the instructions to create a virtual machine on which to run Mint Linux. He has a 1GB machine so he just allows 400mb for the memory so he still leaves a lot for Windows to use. He creates a 30gb virtual hard disk (but actually this is just a single file on his Windows machine and it will only take up as much room as is used). He selects the Mint Linux DVD image file that he downloaded and VirtualBox pretends that it is a DVD inserted into his DVD drive. He follows the instructions and he has Mint Linux running in a virtual machine in less than 20 minutes. He tries Mint Linux out for a while and realizes it that it runs much nicer than Windows and he would rather have this than Windows on his machine! (Even though Linux is running in a Virtual Machine and so if much slower than if he had installed it fullly!) All the while he is safe in the knowledge that nothing on his Windows machine is affected by what he does on the Virtual Mint Linux machine running in VirtualBox. He minimizes the VirtualBox Window and sees that Windows is still there in the background if he wants to go back to it.
This can work the other way around of course. If Jack had Linux installed and just wanted to run a couple of programs that he had for Windows he could create a Virtual Windows Machine using VirtualBox for Linux. The only problem with this is that he would have to buy a Windows license for each Windows Virtual Machine he created.
Jack now he decides to create a new Virtual Machine for all his shopping and another Virtual Machine for his social networking. These machines run completely independent of each other. He creates a shared folder on his Windows machine and configures the VirtualBox software for his 2 virtual machines to access this folder. So now his Windows machine and both Virtual Linux Machines can share files back and forth in this folder. He copies some old word documents to this shared folder, then he goes into one of the Virtual Machines and loads the file into LibreOffice.
Okay so maybe you wouldn’t quite want all that, especially on top of a Windows machine, but the point is it is so powerful. You can create a snapshot at any point in time. you could then try installing some software and if it crashed or had problems, instead of uninstalling it, you could jsut revert back to the snapshot image.
If Jack in our example decided he wanted to install Linux properly, he could still install it alongside Windows and it would create an option when the computer first starts up which operating system he wanted to run. Of course this does alter some system files so its not quite as safe as the Virtual Machine method. Also you can only run one operating system at a time. But of course when each operating system runs natively (not Emulated) it runs much faster and has all the memory available to it.
Computing Tips 2 (Security and Privacy Online) — No Comments