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Operating Systems

Protect your privacy online and elsewhere

Facebook's recent security breaches show the how vulnerable our "private" Web activities can be and remind us to check our defenses regularly.

Facebook is taking a lot of heat — again — about failing to protect the privacy of its users. (See Caroline McCarthy's The Social blog for a recap of the service's most-recent security gaffes.)

No matter what safety precautions Facebook and other social networks and Web sites take, eventually somebody's private data will become public, whether due to human error or a successful hack attack. Either way, your Web activities and the personal information you post to an online profile may be viewed by strangers, regardless of the account's security settings.

There are ways to minimize the risk of someone misusing your personal information. The Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities — led by Australia's Office of the Privacy Commissioner — have declared this Privacy Awareness Week, so why not take a few minutes to complete an ID theft risk assessment to help you find weak spots in your privacy defenses?

The test's 11 categories include online shopping, PCs, and passwords, but they also cover your wallet, your garbage, and your (physical) mailbox. Particularly timely are the questions on protecting the personal information you share online.

ID theft risk-assessment categories
The ID theft risk assessment tool covers everything from garbage to passwords and online shopping. Asia Pacific Privacy Authorities

After you answer the rater's 40-or-so questions, you see your privacy-awareness score on a scale of 1 to 100. The privacy test won't tell you how to check the strength of your firewall and antimalware software, but it does serve as a timely reminder that threats to our privacy and financial security take many forms.

Filter potentially dangerous sites
It's no mystery that many of the Web's criminals lurk in the seamy neighborhoods intended only for adults — and not necessarily law-abiding ones. All the popular browsers let you block sites in various unsavory categories automatically or allow only the sites you specify. The free OpenDNS service maximizes your Web-filtering options and also displays statistics about your browsing.

These include your Web activity by hour and a complete list of the sites you've visited along with the number of visits to each. The free service archives your statistics for two weeks; longer histories are one of the many extras in the Deluxe version, which covers a family with up to five members for $10 a year. For businesses, the Deluxe service costs $5 per user per year.

OpenDNS statistics page
The free OpenDNS service gives you a detailed view of your Web activity and lets you block or allow specific sites. OpenDNS

OpenDNS offers three built-in filter levels: the highest setting blocks everything from adult content to "time-wasters"; moderate's 13 blocked categories focus on adult sites and illegal activities; and the lowest built-in setting stymies four categories of adult-only sites. You can create your own filter by blocking sites in any of OpenDNS's 55 categories. Other tools let you determine whether a specific site is blocked, correct typos automatically, upload your own image, and customize the message that appears when a site is blocked ("Shouldn't you be doing your homework?")

The service's widespread network of Web-cache servers promises to speed up your browsing, though I didn't test this, nor did I notice pages loading any faster when browsing via OpenDNS servers. For people who use dynamic IP addresses, the OpenDNS support page explains how to use the DNS-o-Matic applet to connect to Web services — including OpenDNS itself — that normally require a static IP address. And for a closer look at OpenDNS's features, check out the service's video-tutorial library.