By Jay Munro
Privacy seems to be getting harder to find in this age of public databases, surveillance cameras, and online social networking. Because of the nature of the web, it's pretty easy for someone using your computer to see what you've been up to on the web, as well as it is for a website to track where you've been. In this column, I'm going to show you how Internet Explorer 8 and InPrivate can help keep your surfing private, particularly when you share a computer with others.
Most of the time, you don't really care whether anyone knows which websites you've been visiting. Everybody looks at talking cats on YouTube, right? However, you might not want to disclose your destinations when you're banking at a kiosk, buying your sweetheart a birthday gift, or doing anything you shouldn't be doing at work.
In the past, the only way to cover your tracks on a shared computer was to delete your entire browsing history, which often deleted things you wanted to keep. Internet Explorer has given you some new ways to manually clear existing history, and a way to not leave a new history trail.
When you clear your history manually in Internet Explorer 8, you can choose to keep the cookies and temporary files associated with your saved favorites. This can help preserve preferences that you might have chosen on your favorite websites. To clear your history without upsetting your favorites, do the following:
In Internet Explorer, click the Safety button, and then click Delete Browsing History.
In the Delete Browsing History dialog, select the Preserve Favorites website data check box.
Select the check boxes for the things you want to delete and then click Delete.
Your browsing history will be deleted, but any data associated with your favorites will stay. If you're new to Internet Explorer 8, you'll notice that the check boxes are sticky. Internet Explorer 8 remembers your settings so the next time you go to delete your history, it's set the way you want it.
Clearing your history by hand is fine, but InPrivate Browsing lets you avoid leaving a trail on your computer in the first place. This way you can choose when you leave a trail, and when you don't. To use InPrivate Browsing, do one of the following in Internet Explorer:
Click the New Tab button, and then click Open an InPrivate Browsing window.
Click the Safety button, and then click InPrivate Browsing.
When you start InPrivate Browsing, it opens a new window. As you browse, Internet Explorer 8 tucks away your cookies, temporary files, and other bits of history. When you close the browsing window, all of that is deleted. Keep this in mind if you're using a kiosk at the airport and you hear last call for boarding. Take that extra couple of seconds to close your InPrivate window.
Why doesn't InPrivate just toss that stuff in the first place? InPrivate needs to save a few things for your session so websites work correctly while you're browsing. For example, cookies are used by many sites to keep track of your choices, site preferences, and other things. If you change a setting on a website during your browsing session, InPrivate remembers during that session, but discards the information when you close the window. The next time you return to the website, your previous preferences are intact.
InPrivate Browsing can be used for viewing any website where you don't want to leave a history. I use it when I check my bank balance at work. I'm fairly confident our network administrators don't care which bank I use, but I'd rather not have that information on my computer. Note: If you only go to a site from within InPrivate Browsing, you have to re-enter user names, passwords, and other data every time you visit a website, as I do with my bank account information. But no history is what we want, right?
Just as important as what InPrivate does do, is what it doesn't do. It's not anonymous browsing, so while you don't leave a trail on your computer, you might leave one on the web. Websites might be able to identify you by your browsing behavior on the site, or anything about your connection that can be recorded, such as your IP address. It also doesn't prevent someone on your network, like as a network administrator or a hacker, from seeing where you went, and possibly what you did on those pages.
If you save any favorites or feeds, or add a favorite or Web Slice to the Favorites bar, or install anything while browsing InPrivate, closing the browser window won't remove any of that. Changes to Internet Explorer settings, such as adding a new home page, are also retained after you end your InPrivate Browsing session.
If you use toolbars that save history or information on your computer, that isn't removed, either. Because of this, Internet Explorer disables all toolbars and extensions by default in an InPrivate window.
You can re-enable your toolbars by going to the Privacy tab in Internet Options and clearing the Disable toolbars and extensions when InPrivate Browsing starts check box.
InPrivate Browsing also doesn't protect you from malicious software or risky websites. If you download content or view sites known for hosting malware, you're not going to be any safer browsing with InPrivate than browsing without it. Internet Explorer offers security features that can help protect you from malicious sites, and that warn you not to download unknown software. However, if you still download and run a program that has a virus, your computer's going to get it.
For more information on what InPrivate does and doesn't do, as well as how to turn on disabled add-ons, see What is InPrivate Browsing?
While InPrivate Browsing helps you stay in control of your web surfing trail, InPrivate Filtering helps give you more control over who's keeping an eye on you online. To understand what InPrivate Filtering can help you with, you need to understand a little about how websites get online content.
Did you know that when you visit many of your favorite or trusted websites, other websites may also know you've been there? A lot of websites use third parties to provide content—advertising, weather gizmos, maps, analytical tools—to enhance your experience while on the site. The elements you most enjoy on some webpages may be placed there by a variety of third–party providers. It's just how the web works.
You're probably thinking, "So what?" Well, when you visit a favorite website, it gets some information from your browser—browser type, operating system, IP address, screen resolution. When you visit a website that has third-party content, that content provider can also get that information.
That's probably not too bad, but let's say you go to different websites that use the same content from the same third-party provider. Now that provider knows you care about its content, and also knows you visit all those websites. In time, the provider can develop a profile of your web surfing habits. When combined with other information—like if you clicked through to a specific ad and entered a contest—the provider can paint a pretty good picture of your web browsing preferences.
Now, the web doesn't always work very well without these third-party arrangements and a little give and take. You get free content in exchange for viewing advertising or providing some information. This system works and is usually mutually beneficial. And of course with targeted advertising, you just might get ads for something you're actually looking for.
Web analysis tools are used by content providers to study your surfing habits. They often consist of scripts that can track how long you stay on a webpage, the pages you visit, the selections you make, and sometimes where you go next.
They can be visible, such as the familiar the hit counter, or virtually invisible, such as a 1-pixel image in the uppermost corner of a page. Those little images are called web beacons because they broadcast information back to another website when you visit the page the beacon is on. This tactic is often used in marketing e-mails to see whether you open a message, thus confirming your e-mail address is active or the e-mail was interesting enough to read. Most e-mail clients can block and notify you when they encounter an image. If you download the image and the screen doesn't seem to change (unless you look really carefully), it's probably a web beacon.
For more information, search for "web analysis tools" on your favorite search provider.
But there are some content providers you don't want to know your surfing habits. This can be for any reason; that's your choice. Here's how InPrivate Filtering can help you better control that information.
InPrivate Filtering isn't designed to block ads, and it doesn't have a hidden agenda. It only looks for content on a webpage that comes from someplace other than the website you're on. It doesn't know the difference between a weather report you want and an ad you don't. Also, when you block content on a website, you could get either a poor experience with missing elements, or the site might not work at all. That can happen when website contains a web analysis tool that isn't a visually obvious to you, but is financially necessary to the website. If you want to block the content that helps the website pay the bills, the site might not want you to be there.
InPrivate Filtering provides a way for you to see which third-party websites are receiving your browsing information, and lets you choose which to allow and which to block. Like InPrivate Browsing, InPrivate Filtering is applied per-session—you have to turn it on every time you open your browser. You don't have to open a special window; just do one of the following to start using InPrivate Filtering:
Select InPrivate Filtering from the Safety menu.
Click the InPrivate Filter icon on the Internet Explorer status bar.
InPrivate Filtering is always looking for and tracking third-party content that shows up on many different websites. Let's take a look and see which sites could have been watching you. Click the Safety button, and then click InPrivate Filtering settings. If this is the first time you've opened the InPrivate Filtering settings, click Let me choose which providers receive my information. The settings dialog box will display a list of content providers. If you've been using Internet Explorer 8 for a while, you probably have a good number of providers in the list.
With InPrivate Filtering, you have three options: turn it off and don't block anything, automatically block third-party providers, or manually choose which ones to allow or block. When you visit a website with third-party content, the filter makes a note of it. When you go to another website that has the same content, the filter adds to the count for that provider. When you cross a threshold of the number of websites that use some specific content, the content provider shows up in the list. By default, the threshold is 10 websites, but you can change it from 3–30. Once a content provider is on your list, InPrivate Filtering will block or allow it based on your preferences.
If you ever wonder how many things are blocked on a webpage, point your mouse at the InPrivate Filtering icon in the status bar.
The pro: We all know there are security risks on the web. You could be exposed to potentially malicious content or conduct on any website. Add in third-party content, and your risk comes from both the website you visit and the third-party content on it. While the site you're visiting may be trustworthy, you don't always know who is delivering additional content.
The con: The Internet works best when websites link to each other, and that model has brought a lot of content to the web for free. The benefit of allowing third-party content is that many websites can offer content for free that you would otherwise have to pay for. Free mail accounts, weather and traffic reports, talking cat movies, and other cool stuff we love is free because websites are willing to subsidize it in exchange for your eyes and information.
Internet Explorer 8 is all about choice. You have the choice of whether or not to leave a history trail on your computer; you can delete existing history without losing preferences on your favorites; and you can identify, block, or allow third-party content that's used on multiple sites. It's all up to you, so go forth and surf!
If you'd like to read more about Internet Explorer features, check out the IE Blog, where you can get information straight from the Internet Explorer developers. For more information about how Microsoft protects your privacy, see the Internet Explorer privacy statement online.
About the author
Jay Munro is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft, specializing in Internet Explorer. Previously, he was a project leader with PC Magazine labs and a freelance writer for PC Magazine, Extreme Tech, PC Today, C-Net, Computer Shopper, and other magazines.
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