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How can I hide where I’ve been online?

Some holding a huge pile of folders

Hiding where you’ve been on the internet may sound a bit sneaky. But if you use the web on a regular basis, sooner or later you will probably want to take steps to safeguard your privacy. Even from your nearest and dearest.

Jane Fae | 9th September 2010

Think birthday present or expensive anniversary treat. A surprise weekend away. Intimate conversations with friends - personal chat or explosive gossip. Not to mention online banking, credit card payments and personal financial details. What about confidential work research carried out on your home PC?

Even if you are happy to share all of the above with every member of your household, what happens when you get rid of your PC and some enterprising techno-whizz decides to recycle your hard drive? Suddenly, how you’ve used your PC, how you’ve set it up and what data you’ve left lying around, could be extremely important.

You always leave a trail

First things first. Modern software is embarrassingly helpful. Can’t remember a word? The program will suggest alternatives for you. Too tired to key in your surname? The machine is quite capable of doing so on your behalf. And password? If you allow it, the machine will remember and complete that too. These and similar features can all be found under the heading of ’auto-complete’.

Turn off auto-complete – or at least turn it off where it matters. Don’t ask your PC to leave you “always logged on” to sites. Do not, ever, ever, ever, allow it to remember passwords on your behalf.

What about the places you’ve been to? Just knowing the sites you’ve visited may feel like a lesser risk. Perhaps embarrassing, if (like some 50% of adults) you occasionally decide to view more adult material, but otherwise harmless. Think again.

Anyone interested in identity theft can glean a lot just from knowing where you’ve been.

Again, it is your PC’s helpful nature that is the enemy. Many sites leave cookies. Most web-browsing packages create histories, which list in excruciating detail every page you’ve ever visited. Both these can be deleted, although the method varies from package to package. Look for ’Tools’, ’Options’ and ’Delete history’.

Use privacy software

However, unless you have an intimate knowledge of how your PC stores history, this may not be enough. Look, therefore, for ’privacy software’ online.

Some does far more than erase browsing history - some (be very careful) attaches you to advertising services. Read up on reviews of privacy software before you download one. Look for ease of use, and no commercial tie-in.

As for getting rid of your PC, re-formatting your disk is a very good way to go and will safeguard your privacy from 99% of criminals. If, however, you really want to put your browsing history beyond all possibility of recovery, the serious expert view favours just one low-tech solution – and that involves your hard disk and a sledgehammer!

Jane Fae

Jane Fae

Jane is a consultant on database marketing and crm, as well as a nationally known writer on issues of political and sexual liberty. She also writes for the Register, one of the world's biggest online tech publications, about current affairs, policing and the law as it impinges on technology users.