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Programs help defeat Web's spies

| Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

When you surf the Internet, everyone is watching.

Tracking companies, search engines and social networks try to learn your habits for advertising purposes. Your Internet service provider monitors you to make sure you're not doing anything illegal.

A government analyst somewhere might think you're “interesting.”

Scammers and hackers are waiting to seize any opportunity to steal your identity and your money.

Many people believe there's nothing they can do to prevent such snooping.

Well, it's not as hard as you may think. All you need are a few tools and coaching in covert ops.

Just call me Komando...Kim Komando.

• Spy trainee. Hackers use viruses to exploit your computer and steal personal information. Your first line of defense is to keep a clean machine and make sure your security software is up to date.

When you surf, your browser keeps a record of where you go, what you search for, and what you download. It also stores cookies, which can track you. Wipe out this information with a program like CCleaner.

Or make sure it isn't recorded in the first place. Toggle to private or incognito browsing mode. All major browsers have it listed in the main menu.

Private browsing prevents history and cookies from being saved, but it does nothing to mask your Internet identity.

For that, you need to advance to the next level.

• Field agent. When you go online, your ISP gives your computer a unique Internet protocol address.

An IP address doesn't identify you personally, but it reveals which ISP you use and your general geographic location.

Of course, your ISP records your IP address and the IP addresses of the sites you visit.

There are ways you can disguise your IP address.

A Web-based proxy server allows you to enter the address of a site you want to visit. The proxy service requests the website and displays it for you.

The site you visit can't see or track you. And your ISP doesn't know where you've gone either.

Web-based proxies work entirely through your browser. There's little, if any, security in the connection, however.

If you want to take the next step, you can download a proxy system like Tor. This routes all your Internet traffic through volunteer servers around the world.

If you're authorized to use your home computer to access your company or school network, you're using a virtual private network. Many VPN providers offer subscriptions to individuals. A VPN will cost you, but you gain a high level of encryption and more reliability

• Bond, James Bond. Master spies need a way to anonymously use any computer that's handy.

That's possible with a bootable USB stick or DVD loaded with Tails (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System). The free, open-source package bypasses a computer's internal operating system and hard drive.

The live-boot Linux operating system works on Macs and PCs. A built-in, customized browser takes advantage of the Tor network. Other tools in the package encrypt your email and instant messages. There's even free productivity software.

As 007 would say: Brilliant!

Email her at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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