Desktop Privacy & Security
 
I
N
D
E
  X  

Desktop Privacy & Security: Intro/Overview

The Desktop Privacy & Security topic differs from the other topics in one important respect: where the other topics are primarily oriented towards protecting the confidentiality and integrity of one's data from threats that emanate from the Internet, your topic is focused on securing the data that is on one's hard drive. Where the other groups' topics are externally oriented, yours is internally oriented. Most PC's contain a wealth of personally important and sensitive data, including personal correspondence, financial information, and professional work products. In many respects, what's on that PC is YOU (or at least an important part of you). Indeed, one's own PC is where privacy and security properly ought to begin, not end. Users ought to take a great interest in Desktop Privacy and Security; unfortunately, it's a topic that many users neglect.

Most of your sub-topics here revolve around specialized utilities that allow users to secure their PC's, even from threats that arise from physical access to a computer. Though your topic is software oriented, you will often have to explain key concepts about the ways Windows operates, so don't lose sight of that important purpose.

Crypto

Crypto is short for encryption. Encryption is the process of taking a plaintext original -- a message or a chunk of data -- and using a special code or cipher and a special key to transform or "scramble" that plain text into ciphertext -- text that is literally indecipherable (except by certain people). To make sense of that encrypted text, we use a key to decrypt the ciphertext back into plaintext. That's a very simple explanation of what encryption is, and while crypto methodology involves more complicated concepts and processes, such an explanation is enough to allow us to understand what crypto does.

Crypto basically allows us to take plain text that we wish to protect from the prying eyes of others and change it into encrypted text so that only certain people -- those with the proper keys -- can make sense of it. Put another way, crypto gives us the power to lock information up in a secure fashion so that only those with the proper keys can unlock it. Thus, we can use crypto software to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the data on our computers as well as our digital communications (our email) with others.

The field of crypto is a well-covered subject on the World Wide Web. You can find many web pages that offer accessible, "down-to-earth" explanations of basic crypto concepts and terms, as well as more advanced discussions of the crypto issues geared towards specialists. A good place to start would be the following page, where you'll encounter links to any number of intro guides, overviews, primers, and even dictionaries and glossaries: 

General Crypto Info

While it helps to have at least a rudimentary understanding of crypto terms and ideas before we embark on attempting to use crypto software, we don't need to be experts to use the crypto programs that are out there.

So what can we use crypto software to encrypt? Any number of things, including the files and folders sitting on our hard drives. When we encrypt our files or folders, we protect them from folks who might be tempted to snoop through our confidential files and data. Even if someone were to gain physical access to our computers and the encrypted data on those computers, the encrypted files would be unreadable garbage because only we would be able to decrypt them in order to make sense of them.

There are two basic approaches we can take to data encryption. First, we can use a program to encrypt individual files and folders. This page will point you to the wealth of programs with those capabilities:

File & Folder Encryption

You don't have to limit yourself to encrypting individual files and folders, though. There are a number of software packages that enable you to set up large, encrypted container files, which can then be mounted and used as virtual drives. Some of the more popular virtual drive encryption programs (often referred to as OTFE, or On-the-Fly-Encryption, programs) include ScramDisk, E4M (Encryption for the Masses), and BestCrypt. You can even find programs to encrypt hard drives in their entirety. For links to disk encryption utilities, see this page:

Disk Encryption

One of the more popular (and legendary) encryption programs is Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Although PGP is best known for its email encryption and signing capabilities, it can also be used to encrypt (and sign) individual files. The more recent versions of PGP also include a virtual drive encryption program called PGPdisk, which works very much like the On-the-Fly Encryption programs we mentioned above. If you'll be covering PGPdisk or PGP's file encrypting functionality, check out the PGP info pages linked to here:

PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)

And you can find links to the various versions of PGP that are out there on the net on this page:

PGP Versions, Sources, & Alternatives

Although technically not crypto, steganography programs can also help you protect your files and information from unwelcome eyes. Steganography is the practice of hiding one thing (typically a plain text file) inside of something else (usually a binary file like a sound file or picture file). Again, the net is rife with stego applications, many of them quite easy to use:

Steganography

Secure Deletion

If you'll be encrypting information on your hard drive, then another important topic to look into is secure deletion. As you may already know, when you delete a file or folder off your hard drive that data remains accessible or recoverable by people with the right tools, even after you empty the Recycle Bin. There are many times, however, when we want data that we delete to be gone for good, such as when we move files from an unencrypted portion of our hard drive into a encrypted virtual drive that we set up with a program like PGPdisk. There's no sense in going to the trouble of encrypting data on your drive if the plain text originals can be easily recovered by anyone with an "undelete" program. Another instance in which we might want deleted data to be unrecoverable is when we're cleaning "junk" files off of our hard drives, because that "junk" may contain sensitive personal information (see the Junk Cleaning sub-topic below for more info). Either way, we're talking about "secure deletion" of data so that it doesn't come back to haunt us.

If we want deleted data to be gone for good, we'll need to use secure deletion programs like file shredders and disk wipers. File shredding involves securely deleting individual files. Disk wiping involves scrubbing the "empty" portions of our hard drives of data "residue" that may still be hanging around. These are two distinct tasks, and each is important. And keep in mind that although I've used the terms "file shredding" and "disk wiping" here to denote those distinct processes, you will see folks using the terms almost interchangeably (e.g., you'll see many references to "file wiping" apps etc.). Also, most secure deletion programs will be capable of performing both file shredding and disk wiping, though you should take care to investigate each program you look at carefully.

Sami Tolvanen's Eraser is well-regarded for its shredding and wiping capabilities, but there are other effective secure deletion programs available: 

File Shredding/Disk Wiping

For links to general info about secure deletion, look through this page:

General Crypto Info

Junk Cleaning

As we mentioned earlier, one important privacy concern involves "junk" files on our hard drives that may contain sensitive or revealing personal information. Unbeknownst to many users, Windows and many Windows applications (like the Microsoft Office suite of programs) generate an enormous amount of temporary "junk" during the course of normal use. While this junk data is completely innocuous in some respects, someone with access to our PC could use the information contained in that "junk" to reconstruct a surprising amount of information about who we are, how we conduct our lives, and what we've been doing on our PC's and the Internet. In other words, this routinely generated "junk" constitutes a tell-tale trail of information about our identities, our lives, and our everyday activities. To protect our privacy, we need to clean this "junk" up so that our PC's don't reveal more about us than we'd care to share with others.

So what kinds of "junk" should we be concerned with? We can divide this "junk" into several main categories:

Windows Temp Files: Windows creates and uses temporary work files, usually in the TEMP directory; unfortunately, Windows doesn't always clean up after itself.
 
Application Temp Files: applications like Word and Excel generate and use temporary work files, usually in the TEMP directory, but not always; like Windows, these applications don't always clean up after themselves.
 
Browser Junk: web browsers use file caches, URL histories, and cookies during normal surfing of the World Wide Web; though browsers provide means to clean up this junk, they often don't complete the job.
 
MRU's: Windows and many individual applications keep track of Most Recently Used files, usually in the Windows Registry, though in other locations, too; not all applications provide a means to clear these MRU lists (or prevent them from being generated).
 
Swap Files: Windows uses a "swap file" for "virtual memory," writing data from memory to the swap file on the hard drive to expand the total amount of system memory available to Windows; Windows doesn't provide a readily available way to scrub the swap file of potentially sensitive and revealing data.

All of these types of "junk" can contain important information about us and our computer activity, and it's important that we educate users about cleaning it up. To do so, we need to discuss several aspects of "junk" cleaning with respect to each type of "junk":

Although we will explain to our readers how to clean this junk up manually, we should also introduce them to several of the many junk cleaning programs that are available. For links to all kinds of junk cleaning programs, see this page:

Privacy Junk Cleaners

You'll note that there's a blizzard of programs listed on that page. Some are "comprehensive,", in that they're capable of handling all the various kinds of junk that we listed above. Some are more specialized, however, becauase they concentrate on cleaning up after certain programs or types of programs (like web browsers). Also, be on the look out for junk cleaning programs that have file shredding and disk wiping capabilities. As we noted above, it's important to scrub that junk clean off our hard drives so that it doesn't come back to plague us.

Spyware/Adware

The term "spyware" is seeing increasing use these days. In fact, you'll encounter all kinds of programs that are referred to as "spyware." It's important to be specific, though, about just what we mean when we label a program "spyware." We can define "spyware" as software that monitors and collects information about PC users and their Internet and computer activities, and then makes that sensitive information available to others (usually by "phoning home" to a designated location on the Internet). Put simply, "spyware" is software that "snoops" on PC users and then "rats" them out to somebody else.

Although the term "spyware" can be readily applied to such programs as keyloggers and other PC monitoring programs (see THIS page for a list of such programs), we are more concerned with "spyware" programs that are employed by commercial interests for direct marketing purposes.

The term "spyware" was first applied a few years to a class of programs known as "adware." "Adware" stands for "ad sponsored freeware." "Adware" programs are "free" programs that incorporate ad delivery mechanisms ("spyware" modules) that allow marketers to deliver targeted advertising straight to users' desktops -- usually in small windows within the "adware" programs themselves -- and to collect data about users and their use of the Internet. In other words, that "free" program you may have downloaded is not really free; you pay for using it by allowing advertisers to place ads within that program and monitor your Internet activities.

When you install "adware" the setup program installs the main program itself (the application you were interested in) along with "adware" modules that actually do the business of requesting and delivering targeted advertising to your desktop. That advertising can be "targeted" at you because those adware modules collect and report demographic information about you, along with information about what you do on the your PC and the Internet, thus allowing marketers to craft ads based on your needs and interests. The folks who produce these "adware" modules make their money by selling advertising space to advertisers, much like a newspaper sells ad space its daily editions.

Since "adware" first appeared on the Internet scene a few years ago, many other similar types of "spyware" have been concocted, giving us a dizzying array of obnoxious programs to contend with:

Download assistant programs (like GetRight, Download Accelerator, and Gozilla) remain popular mechanisms for delivering spyware modules (from companies like Aureate/Radiate, Cydoor, Web3000, Conducent/Timesink, and Flyswat) to users' computers. (Not all download assistant programs are "spyware-infested" -- see THIS page for a list of some that are "spyware-free.") Some download assistant programs have even been known to monitor and keep track of the downloads that users make -- see Steve Gibson's excellent "Anatomy of File Download Spyware" for the story of one such program.

Web browser "enhancing" "foistware" (like Comet Cursor, Bonzi Buddy, SurfPlus, TopMoxie, GoHip, Webhancer, Top Text, Wild Tangent, New.net, SurfSafari, et al) and "spyware-infested" P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing programs like Kazaa, BearShare, Limewire, and Audio Galaxy (with the ever "popular" ClickTillUWin, OnFlow, and VX2) have become increasingly common. (Not all P2P programs are "spyware-infested" -- see THIS page for a list of some that are "spyware-free.")

Many software companies like Intuit (makers of Quicken) and Real Media (makers of the Real Player and Real Jukebox) are incorporating such obnoxious spyware functionality into standard desktop and multimedia applications, often to turn their programs into front-ends to Internet-based "services," for which they can charge recurring usage fees and which they can use to enter the direct marketing bonanza. I won't even get into the subject of Microsoft's efforts to incorporate its own MSN.com and Passport services directly into Windows.

Even ISP's (Internet Service Providers) are getting into the game, making it impossible for their users to connect to the Internet through their services without using "spyware" programs (like Broadjump, Inverse/IpInsight, Tioga, and NetZero's connectivity/distributed-computing software). (And let's not forget AOL as well as MSN.com's Passport, services whose main mission it is to deliver bodies and souls up to marketers and advertisers.)

Finally, hardware manufacturers have entered the direct marketing scene (e.g., Phoenix BIOS, Lexmark printers, and CueCat scanners), surely the bottom of the barrel. Anything and everything with a digital heartbeat, it seems, wants to phone home with information about who you are and what you do, because, surely, you are just dying to be direct marketed into oblivion.

We can group "spyware" into several categories -- though these categories are not hard and fast, and marketers are coming up with ever more clever ways to put advertising in front of you and collect information about you. In fact, you'll often find "spyware" that spans several of these categories:

Adware: ad sponsored "freeware," the original type of "spyware" that piggybacks on "free" programs that users download from the Internet.
 
Download-ware: download assistant programs that extend a web browser's downloading capabilities (and, incidentally, monitor and collect data about those downloads as well as more general Internet usage).
 
Web browser "foistware": web browser add-ons and plug-ins that "enhance" a web browser's functions and appearance (while also collecting Internet usage info and delivering advertising of one sort or another to the browser).
 
ISP-ware: connectivity software used by ISP's to connect users to a dialup, DSL, or cable modem service (as well as to collect Internet usage information and deliver targeted ads to connected users).
 
Connect-ware: connectivity software incorporated into standard desktop and multimedia software programs like Quicken and Real Player to give those programs Internet connectivity, allowing software manufacturers to monitor and control program use, deliver advertising, and tie program use to enrollment in online services.
 
Hardware "spyware": "spyware" modules either embedded within the hardware itself (like printers, scanners, and motherboards) or within software drivers and add-on utilities for that hardware.

"Spyware" is not only a direct assault on the privacy of PC users, but it can also lead to computer stability problems and network connection glitches. Users with "spyware" infested computers often report endless unexplained crashes and slow, unreliable network connections.

Most PC users haven't the faintest clue that such software exists, though my experience tells me that the majority of users these days have at least a few (if not many more) spyware programs on their computers (and absolutely NONE of those programs were truly installed knowingly and voluntarily). Even those users who are aware of (and undoubtedly annoyed at) the "enhancements" made to their computers by these "spyware" programs often don't fully understand what those programs do. And they certainly don't know how to get rid of them.

Your job in this topic is to educate your readers about "spyware" in all its aspects and forms. Specifically, we need to explain:

For info on spyware/adware, see the links on this page:

Spyware/Adware Info

And for software that can be used to deal with spyware/adware (including Ad-aware), see this page:

Spyware/Adware Tools

This topic is a moving target, as so many companies are rushing to get into the game of spying on home users in the hopes of achieving a direct marketing utopia, so pay attention to the news (as well as to all those programs you download off the Internet).

Windows Control

Our final topic involves two types of software to help users control what's actually running on their computers. Most users are completely unaware of the fact that there may be any number of programs running in the "background" on their computers other than the ones they happen to be directly using. Such programs may be standard Windows modules and services that are completely normal and innocuous. They may also be "spyware" programs such as we discussed above. Still worse, they may be trojan horses that give unwelcome guests access to and control over their computers. Your job in this topic is to show users how to find out what's running on their computers, how to kill programs that shouldn't be running, and how to prevent unwelcome programs from launching automatically when Windows starts.

There are two types of third-party utilities to which you'll need to introduce your readers. You can think of these programs as two sides of the same coin. One type of program allows users to identify programs that are actually running at the moment on their computers and to shut them down. The other type of program gives users the power to prevent those programs from starting up in the first place when users boot to the Windows desktop.

The first type of program is a "task manager" or "process monitor" (though you'll also see references to "process killers" or "kill9" utilities). Although Windows includes its own native Task Manager (accessible via CTRL-ALT-DEL in Windows 9x and Me, or CTRL-SHIFT-ESC in Windows NT, 2000, and XP), this native Task Manager is limited in its ability to reveal running programs and to kill them. You should point your readers to more powerful and capable process monitors and task managers from third-parties and explain how to use them effectively. For links to third-party task managers and process monitors, see this page:

Process/Task Managers

Killing unwelcome programs after they're already running isn't good enough, though. We need to prevent these programs from starting up in the first place. Windows has a large number of locations from which applications can automatically launch whenever Windows starts up (e.g., the Startup folder,  within system files like WIN.INI, and within the Windows Registry). Most of your readers won't have the faintest idea that these locations exist, let alone where they are or how to edit them in order to control what applications launch at Windows start-up.

Your first job, then, is to explain where these locations are and how to edit them. And although you should introduce your readers to the native utility included with Windows 9x and Me (but not Windows NT, 2000, or XP) to control startup locations (MSCONFIG.EXE, which you can launch from Start >> Run...), you should also point your readers towards the many third-party startup managers that exist and explain how to use them. For links to utilities that can control programs that launch when Windows starts up, see this page:

Start Up Managers

Finally, you might also take a look at the several utilities that exist to allow users to control access to their computers, preventing unwelcome tampering and changes. You can find links to such programs, known as desktop lockdown programs, on this page:

Desktop Security/Lockdown

This Page Last Updated: Mar. 26, 2002

Home [frames]        Home [no frames]

Advice, Organization, & Compilation 
2000, 2001, 2002 Eric L. Howes