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Computer Privacy Annoyances by Dan Tynan

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LIBRARIES AND SCHOOLS

Beware Public Net Terminals

The Annoyance:

I use the computers at my local library to access my email and do a little word processing. Can the people who use the machine after me see what I’ve done?

The Fix:

They might be able to do that—and a lot more. The security of such public Internet terminals varies wildly from library to library. Some lock down everything on the system, leaving you nothing but access to a browser and a few basic commands. Other libraries think they’ve protected their systems from snoops when they really haven’t.

As an experiment, I visited the public library down the street from my office. In less than 15 minutes, on a system the library thought was secure, I found Word documents containing résumés with complete street address information (including phone numbers and addresses of their references), letters someone had written to their insurance company (complete with their Social Security Number), and an account of someone’s first pregnancy. I was able to view the browser history, which produced not only a record of recent site visits (including some truly nasty ones) but also AOL chat handles and Yahoo email addresses. I could also look at the cookies folder to see what sites the people before me had visited, and so on. Had I been a stalker, an identity thief, or just your average psychopath, this data would have been a goldmine. Meanwhile, the librarian in charge of the terminals had no clue you could save files to the hard drive; he believed ...

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