I know what you did last night

I know what you did last night

By Richard Heller

I know what you did last night

Along with anti-virus software, one of the most important programs that you should have on your computer if you are on the Internet is a “firewall” program.

This program monitors your computer for unusual activity while you are online and prevents others from gaining access to your computer. The problem that you may not be aware of is that you may have programs on your computer that send information without your knowledge.

While you are on the Internet, your computer will send and receive data from other web sites and computer users. Most sites you visit will place a small file called a “cookie” on your computer. This cookie will contain information that will identify you as a returning visitor, it may store your name or other personal data, and in theory, can only be used by the web site that placed the computer on your system. Companies such as Doubleclick also use the cookie to target advertisements to you, i.e., you are checking prices for airline tickets, and you will start seeing ads for rental cars, hotels, etc. The problem is, there are programs that are placing a “super cookie” on your system. This cookie can be used to track all the web sites you visit as well as any files you download. This information is then sold to other companies, that will be notified when you are online so they can start feeding their ads to you.

The programs that do this have names such as “Comet Cursor” and “Flyswat.” The Real Audio Player program installs Comet Cursor, while Flyswat is installed on the e-machine line of computers. Real Player also installs a program named Real Download that allows you to resume a download if, for some reason, it is interrupted. What it also does is report back to Real Networks information about your download. Do you really want others to know what you are doing while online?

Gibson Research (www.grc.com) has investigated this practice and has much information available on the subject on his web site. A year ago, he developed a program named OptOut that checked your computer for programs that “spied” on you. He has ceased further development on his program because another company, Lavasoft (www.lavasoft.de) has released a similar product. Ad-aware is available as a free download and will scan your computer for programs that report your online activity and will allow you to remove the spy feature. Many of the shareware and freeware programs available today have the spy feature built in, but so do many of the commercial programs. The popular file download program Gozilla has it, but Reader Rabbit, Family Tree Maker, as well as over 800 other programs also have some sort of spyware in them.

When the spy feature is removed from some programs, the program will no longer function. If this happens you have two options: contact the company to see whether they have a non-spyware version available, or find a similar program without the spy program in it.

Richard Heller is an independent computer specialist who specializes in repairs, installation, upgrades, technical support, Internet sharing, data recovery and diagnostics. If you have any computer or service-related questions, please send them to The Rock River Times or e-mail technorh@mindspring.com.

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