Two simple ways to thwart Web spies

You can block Flash cookies with the free Better Privacy Firefox add-on and prevent sites from using the Flash Player to access your PC's camera and microphone without asking--or at all.

Some Web sites just won't take "no" for an answer. You tell them you don't want their tracking cookies, and they continue to figure out new methods for keeping tabs on your Web activities anyway.

CNET's Greg Sandoval reported last month that several big-name sites have been sued in the U.S. District Court for using Flash cookies to spy on adults and children. At the center of this and similar suits are ad networks Clearspring Technologies and Quantcast that track your online activities even if you set your browser to block standard Web cookies.

On July 14, I described five Firefox privacy add-ons , one of which was Better Privacy, which makes it easy to allow only the Flash cookies you approve or to block all of them. To scrub your PC of all Flash cookies, try the free Flash Cookie Cleaner, although with this program, you must remove all such cookies rather than being able to save the ones you would like to keep around.

Keep your PC's camera and microphone off limits
The online spies have figured out how to use Adobe's Flash Player to eavesdrop on you by activating your PC's built-in camera and microphone. According to the German site The Local, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute contrived a man-in-the-middle attack that allowed them to activate a PC's camera and microphone remotely.

You can set the Flash Player to deny all attempts to access your system's camera and microphone or to ask for permission beforehand. Unfortunately, you can do so only via the Global Privacy Settings panel on Adobe's Flash Player Help site.

Adobe Flash Player Global Privacy Settings
Prevent Adobe's Flash Player from allowing sites to access your PC's built-in camera and microphone via the company's Global Privacy Settings page. Adobe Systems

To prevent an individual site such as YouTube from accessing your camera and microphone, right-click any video's timeline bar and choose Settings. This opens the Adobe Flash Player Settings dialog. Click the Privacy icon in the bottom row (the one with an eyeball on a monitor) and choose the Deny and Remember options.

Adobe Flash Player Settings dialog
Keep YouTube from activating the camera and microphone on your PC by opening the Adobe Flash Player Settings dialog box. Adobe Systems

It won't be long before the online spies figure out even more insidious ways to get to know all about us--with or without our knowledge. When they do, we'll figure out how to close the blinds on them, hopefully before they're able to use what they know about us to our disadvantage.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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