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Operating Systems

Five ways to protect your privacy online

Tips for keeping your Web activities secret, or as secret as the Internet allows.

A friend took me to task for recommending that people use Gmail as a central repository for all their e-mail. (The fact that he works for Yahoo is purely coincidental.)

"Sure, let Google read all your mail and serve up ads based on the content," he said. "Nothing wrong with that." The fact is, I consider everything I do online--searching, browsing, shopping, e-mail, video-viewing, you name it--as public as anything I do on Main Street in midday. That doesn't mean I don't take precautions to protect my credit card numbers and other private information while online, just as I do my best to keep the information secure everywhere else. Here are my Online Privacy Rules.

#1: Paranoia pays. Don't trust anything or anyone. Just because the URL in the address bar begins "https://" and there's a little lock icon in the bottom corner of the browser doesn't mean you can enter your bank-account number, PIN, mother's maiden name, passwords, and the combination to your high school locker without a care. Phishers can spoof just about any indicator the browser makers and security protectors come up with. As much as possible, share your personal information only with those sites you know and trust.

#2: Don't use Internet Explorer. It's the most popular browser, which means it's the target for most data thieves. That's not saying you're 100 percent protected when you use Mozilla Firefox or some other open-source browser, but at least you're not putting the fate of your personal information in the hands of a single company. (I won't even mention Microsoft's spotty security track record.) Hundreds of volunteer programmers poke and prod Firefox (and to a lesser extent, other open-source software) to identify and patch security vulnerabilities.

#3: Use a temporary credit card number. If you know you'll be making a lot of online purchases, contact your credit card provider and ask about getting a temporary number with a preset spending limit and an impending expiration date. (Thanks to my personal tech guru, Steve Bass, for this useful advice.)

#4: Use an anonymizer. Anonymous proxy servers mask your computer's IP address, which allows you to browse without the sites you visit knowing who you are. Web pages will likely take longer to open when you filter them through a proxy server, and the services are not a privacy panacea because they won't stop you from volunteering personal information on a site you shouldn't trust, but they do provide an added layer of protection. There are plenty of free anonymizing proxy servers available, though I've never used any of these, or any other anonymizers. As I mentioned above, the best way to protect your online privacy is to assume you have none, and modify your online behavior accordingly. But I believe I am in the minority opinion on this matter.

#5: Don't use Google. This one's harder to do than it may seem. Not only has "google" become synonymous with Web searching, you can't always tell when you're on a site or using a service with ties to the company's enormous data stores. For example, recently launched its AskEraser service that lets you wipe out your search history, but Ask serves up Google ads in its search results, and Google keeps track of who views its ads. Google makes no bones about its reliance on a history of your online activity to offer its various services. For example, you can't encrypt your messages in Gmail without using an add-in such as the $10 ZipMail for Gmail from MK Net.Work. So once again we're back where we started: The only way to ensure your privacy on the Web is to keep out.

Tomorrow: The fastest way (I know of, at least) to paste plain text in Word.