The Internet Track FAQ
If you're concerned about the files left on your computer when you use the internet or just want to understand the issue, this FAQ offers a straightforward explanation of what internet tracks are, why you might be concerned about them and what to do if you are.
What is an Internet Track?
An internet track is simply a work file created by your browser or email program when you use the internet. These files are used by your browser to make browsing faster or more convenient. For example, your Browser History function allows you to easily revisit a page you've already been to by displaying a list of URLs that you've been to recently. This may be convenient for you, but may be embarrassing if you share a computer with your teenaged children and have been surfing sites for solutions to your hemorrhoid problem.
There are many types of internet tracks created when you go on the internet, depending on the browser or email program you are using, including:
- browser cache, browser history, favicons created when you browse sites,
- download cache created when you download files from other sites,
- email cache, email trash, junk mail or spam created by your email program or kindly sent to you by some well-meaning soul who genuinely believes that you'd be interested to "Discover the perfect gift to give this holiday season" or that you'd be excited to learn that "We approved yours [sic] loan". (note: The loan company's failure to grasp the fundamentals of english grammar doesn't exactly inspire confidence in me.)
Why should I be concerned about internet tracks?
While internet tracks exist to speed up browsing and to provide some convenient features for the internet user, they also present two problems.
- The first is that internet tracks can be recovered by other people, which creates a privacy risk for some users.
- The second is that internet tracks take up disk space.
Is using the "Clear History" and "Clear Cache" functions in my web browser sufficient?
Maybe not. When you clear your cache or history, you do recover the disk space that was being used, but the potential for the data to be recovered by someone else is still there. As Kim Komando said,
"When you delete a file, its space on the hard drive is essentially marked "this space available." The file remains on your hard drive. But [the operating system] considers it forgotten and will reuse the space whenever necessary. Only then will the deleted information be destroyed [Komando, "How to delete files for good", May 2005]
So any time you use a delete function, like "clear history" to clear search history, "clear cache" to clear browser cache or try to delete email by dragging it to the trash, the data is still on your hard drive until it is overwritten by something else. And if you have alot of free space on your hard drive, it could be there for months or even years.
How can I erase internet tracks so they can't be recovered?
There are two ways, either manually, or using internet erase software.
To manually erase internet tracks, shred them with a file shredder as soon as you're finished using the internet.
For example, to manually erase your internet history, drag the browser history file on to the file shredder as soon as you've quit from your browser.
(For IE on a Mac, the file is called Library>Preferences>Explorer>History.html)
As you can imagine, this would be alot of work, since you'd have to manually shred the required files for each type of track you were concerned with (cache, history, favicons, etc), each time you quit from your browser. Fortunately, this task can be automated using a piece of software known by a variety of descriptions such as an internet track eraser, a cache cleaner, a history cleaner or a web shredder. The idea behind an internet eraser is that it securely deletes these work files for you.
Is an internet eraser, an internet track erase, a cache cleaner, a history cleaner and a web shredder the same thing?
Maybe. A short history lesson first. When browsers were first developed, the only internet tracks that had been invented were cache files. Thus, when this type of internet privacy software was first developed, it was often referred to as a "cache cleaner", or "cache clearer". Then the history function was added, and the development of "history cleaner" software soon followed. Over time, browsers and email programs have evolved to include many more internet tracks that need to be erased, and will most likely add more in the future, so a more generic term like "Internet Track Eraser" is often used.
A little quick research on the internet revealed that there are a number of generic terms used to refer to these internet work files: temporary internet files, internet track, footprint, trace. And sometimes the technical name for the specific type of file is used: cache, history, email trash. As well the software may be referred to as an eraser, shredder, cleaner, remover or manager. And although this is not an exhaustive list, this type of software may be called any of the following:
- internet eraser, internet washer, internet cleaner, internet clearup software, internet shredder
- internet track eraser, track eraser, tracks eraser, tracks erase software
- clear cache software, cache cleaner,cache remover, cache cleanup software, cache manager, cache eraser, cache wiper
- clear history software, history cleaner, history eraser, history deletion software, history tracks software, history wiper,
- clear footprints software
- trace remover
- privacy software
Also, these terms may all refer to the same type of software, but there are important feature considerations to be aware of before deciding that two pieces of software are functionally equivalent.
- The first, and most important, is whether the software shreds (erases) the internet tracks, like file shredder software would, or deletes the internet tracks, like using the trash would.
- The second important consideration is how many types of tracks the software erases. Not all software erases all tracks. In fact, some of the earlier products only erase browser cache.
Do the terms "delete" and "secure delete" mean the same thing?
No. The term "delete" refers to the type of computer function where the data is marked as deleted, but not really gone. The following functions also perform a simple "delete":
- Drag files to trash can or recycling bin
- Clear Cache, clear history
- Empty email trash, delete email trash or junk
The technical term "secure delete" refers to the type of computer function where the data is overwritten by other characters so the data can't be recovered. An all-purpose utility that does this is often called a "secure delete utility", a "file shredder" or a "data shredder".
As mentioned previously, a software program that does this specifically for internet tracks may be called a "cache cleaner", an "internet eraser", an "internet track eraser" or a "history cleaner", but just because a software program calls itself an "internet eraser" doesn't mean it actually does a "secure delete" of the files as opposed to just a "delete".
Why don't browsers just erase history instead of deleting it when I clear my history?
Two reasons. The first is because it takes time, more time than you'd like to wait while the task ties up your browser. The second reason is because this would be overkill. Not everyone needs to shred internet tracks.
Do I need to erase my internet tracks?
Unfortunately, scare tactics are sometimes used to sell customers on the idea of internet erase software. Well, don't let them scare you. While it's clear that some people need to erase internet tracks, you might not be one of them.
To determine whether you need to erase your internet tracks, answer these three questions:
- What's in your internet tracks that could be recovered?
Internet tracks are the work files created by your browser and email program when you use the internet. Think about the types of sites you visit, the things you use the internet for, what newsletter you subscribe to and what's in your mail trash.
- If you've done any of the following, you have internet tracks that should be erased: online banking or investing, confidential work-related research, research you'd be embarrassed to have anyone else find out about, surfed porn sites, deleted emails containing financial or confidential client information, or received email newsletter you prefer no one else knew about (Hemorrhoid Quarterly, Porn Star or the Week)
- On the other hand, if all you use the internet for is to email your cousin in Nanaimo (and your cousin never divulges enough information to allow someone to piece together and then steal your identity), or to play online games, you probably don't have any tracks that need erasing.
- What is the likelihood of someone else getting access to your computer and recovering your internet tracks?
- If your computer is in a public building (library, internet cafe), is shared by the rest of family and your teenager's friends, or is not secured by a password, you can be very sure that someone else can and will access it.
- If your computer is frequently in an insecure area, because of where you live, because you travel frequently, or because you use it for demos at trade shows, there's the more serious risk of your computer being stolen and then being accessed by someone for criminal purposes.
- What would happen if someone did recover your tracks?
How bad could this be?
- If having someone else recover your tracks would jeopardize your job, end your marriage, or worse, you already know you need to erase your internet tracks.
- If having your tracks recovered could cause you or someone else loss of income or embarassment, you also should erase your internet tracks.
- If having your tracks recovered could allow someone to steal your identity, save yourself a big headache and erase your internet tracks.
- If having your internet tracks recovered could allow someone to discover that your cousin in Nanaimo had meatloaf for dinner last week, you don't have to worry about your internet tracks.
Think of an internet track eraser as insurance against getting into trouble because someone got hold of your internet tracks. You buy house insurance not because you know you're going to need it, but because you might need it and the cost of not being covered in the case of catastrophe is too high. On the other hand, you might not buy an extended warranty for your new toaster, even though you're likely to need it, because the cost replacing the toaster should it break is so low.
It's definately most cost effective to use an internet track eraser than, for instance, to spend hundreds of dollars and countless hours repairing your credit rating after someone has stolen your identity. But, this might not be a real risk in your case. Armed with your own analysis of what's in your internet tracks, how likely it is that someone else could get hold of them and how bad it could be if someone did, decide for yourself whether using an internet track eraser is the type of insurance you can afford to be without.
If you can't decide, take the Mireth Technology Internet Eraser Test
I erased my internet tracks. Do I ever need to erase them again?
Yes. Every time you use the internet, you create new tracks. So you should erase your tracks as soon as you quit from you browser or email program.
How do I erase internet track files I've already deleted?
Internet tracks, or any file for that matter, that has been deleted is assigned to freespace. To erase these files, use a file shredder to shred the freespace on your hard drive. Please note that this is a time-consuming job. It usually takes a couple of hours to shred all the free space on a hard drive, and maybe longer if you have a large drive.