These tools better than a tinfoil beanie

(Disclaimer: I just love these mailbag requests. It indicates
someone’s reading, paying attention, and maybe doing something. Or
making suggestions. This one came from Kelly Sonora, who has a tech
blog, “All Things Internet/Web World Wide.” The article she sent me was
interesting — especially ’cause I’m interested in Internet security
and I like free stuff. I ran this a few days ago in The Column, Reloaded, but it really belongs here — but you really won’t see a lot of cross-posting.)

In the past I’d written about how public the Internet really is. In cop-show parlance, every time you surf, your business is hung out on the street.

This is indeed true. To illustrate, check out the box called “About You.” (For those who are reading this in RSS-land, hop over to the blog site, read it, and flip out.) You’ll probably see your approximate location,your IP address, and your operating system and browser staring right at you.

Us oldsters remember when things were a lot more private. Plus, the world has
changed since 9/11, Homeland Security, and all these other events that changed our world. Civil liberties just ain’t what they used to be. Even if you’re a normal Joe, not any more paranoia than the next fella, one quick dip through the news may make you think a tinfoil beanie is a pretty good idea.

Paranoia or not, it’s just good sense to surf defensively when you go on line. A lot of valuable information — such as credit card and bank account numbers floats around in cyberspace all the time. Weirdos lurk all over the place, and that nice fella on myspace could well be a 55-year-old Michael Moore lookalike, sitting buck naked at his terminal (for the visually minded, “buck naked” means he’s not wearing any socks, either). People work overtime to put together worms, viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware to either cripple your computer,
mine it for information, or just scare the spit out of you. Every time you surf, you leave little bits of code on the hard drive telling exactly where you’ve been, and those pieces of code are as good as a fingerprint.

But you get the point. It’s a jungle out there. But there are tools to hide you, to cover your tracks, and to protect your information. And if you’re feeling paranoid without reason, there are tools and sites guaranteed to give you something to be paranoid about. Whether you’re normal (whatever that is) or a screaming nut job, there’s probably a tool for you, too.

Here are some of my favorites from “50 Free Internet Tools for Tin-Foil Hat Wearers”, written by Alisa Miller:

Portable Firefox: I love this one. I used it quite a bit when reduced to library
computers, which ordinarily means being stuck with the porous Internet Explorer. Portable Firefox comes with a suite of open-source applications which I use a lot anyway — the AbiWord word processor, Audacity sound editor, and a handful of others. I carry them on a thumb drive with some of the documents I’m working on, which basically gives me a computer in my pocket. And I leave no trace on the host computer. My bookmarks and cookies — those little bits of code that can tell you where I’ve been — also stay on the thumb drive. And surprisingly, I’ve been able to download stuff using a library computer. Good luck doing that with the as-is system. I highly recommend this one. Of course I resent the idea of having to register (and get on a mailing list) just to read a few news articles, so of course I swear by this one. I use it via a Firefox extension, and I can’t think of the last time I’ve registered for anything.

GrandCentral: It’s by Google, and supposedly it consolidates all of your phone numbers into one that’s untraceable. Sounds intriguing, but it is by Google, so take that any way you want.

Clusty and Scroogle: Search engines. Clusty is supposedly highly secure. To my experience it’s also slow. Scroogle is a front-end for Google, which uses encryption and a few other things that supposedly mask your existence while you use Google.

ShieldsUp! and Junkbusters: Both will let you know how secure your computer really is. The more information your computer puts out, the more vulnerable you are to attacks and attempts by nefarious types to sip into your information.
ShieldsUp! tells me my computer is practically invisible.

AVG Anti-Virus: It’s virus protection. They update regularly — more often when some real baddie comes down the pike. And it’s free. That was my guardian
during my Windows days (viruses are not an issue with Linux). The on-the-fly virus protection is, last I looked, somewhat lacking, but the program picks ’em off the hard drive with ease. Virus protection is big business, and it’s a cash cow for some large software companies that play on people’s fears, so if a free one does the job for you, go for it. I understand they’ve added spyware protection since I last used it; a good thing.

Avast! Another free virus protection program. I tried it years ago, and found
it to be slow but thorough. For ease of operation — based on my tests then — I’d give the nod to AVG. But unlike spyware programs, you can only run one virus checker at a time.

Ad-Aware: By Lavasoft. One of only about two spyware-sniffing programs that is
worth anything. The other one, which is not mentioned in the article, is Spybot Search & Destroy. And unlike virus scanners, you can have several spyware checkers on your system. In fact it’s recommended, because each of these two will occasionally miss something. Whatever you do, DON’T order spyware protection from any Internet source that hawks its product through a pop-up box on your browser. Not only will those not work, they’re probably not free and they’re usually spyware themselves. I told you it’s a jungle out there.

SiteAdvisor: Haven’t used this, but heard good things about it. Supposedly lets you know that you’re going to a site that is loaded with spyware or harvests your information. Worth a look.

This isn’t on the list, but if you really want to play it stealthy, you can try one of the small Linux systems loaded via QEMU, an emulator. I have one (with the ultra-small Puppy Linux) on a USB thumb drive. Plug it in to a USB port, click on the icon, and you’re running Linux on top of Windows. it’s so secret even the host computer doesn’t know what you’re doing. There are some real drawbacks — it’s extremely slow, and you really need to be fluent in Linux to use it well. And it can’t print or play music, but I can surf on a library computer and leave absolutely no traces.


Anyway, that’s my own list. Some things worth checking out there.

In fact, I recommend the whole blog. It’s full of good security information.

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