EB wants something that does the same job as Webroot’s discontinued Window Washer, and he’d like to protect his internet address as wellâ€¦
Although there are a few commercial programs that are similar to Webroot’s Window Washer â€” Privacy Guardian ($19.99) and Evidence Eliminator spring to mind â€” a free program does the job perfectly well: CCleaner.
Piriform’s CCleaner (crap cleaner) removes temporary files, history files, cookies, logs, auto-complete entries and other detritus from browsers and many other common programs. (The list can be expanded with CCEnhancer.) It also includes a Windows Registry cleaner. For best results, I’d run it immediately after a re-boot, with no other programs running. In your case, however, you might want to run it after you finish computing for the day.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, download CCleaner from the Piriform site, and do not follow any scam links from adverts on Google. Also, when installing CCleaner, remember to untick the offers to “Install Google Chrome as my default browser” and “Also include Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer” or whatever. I appreciate that companies make money from free software by bundling “foistware” but it should always be provided on an “opt in” basis.
Both Window Washer and CCleaner provide ways of removing files that other people might see, and they recover hard drive space from browser caches. (Google Chrome can easily consume a gigabyte.) But I tend to take the line that (a) nobody else should have access to your account; and (b) if you don’t want your PC to store files that might be a privacy risk, don’t keep them in the first place. For example, browsers already include a feature that says something like (in IE’s case) “Empty Temporary Internet Files folder when browser is closed”. In IE, go to Internet Options, click the Advanced tab, and scroll down to the Security section to enable it.
It’s not unusual for family members to share PCs, but they should use their own separate accounts. This also means you can give them standard accounts instead of administrator accounts, which greatly limits the amount of damage they can do. This is particularly important if some users are children.
“Switch user” is one of the options on the menu that lets you log off Windows, tell the PC to sleep or restart etc. It’s reasonably quick to switch between users if they are already logged on.
Multiple users obviously share a PCs programs and files, but things stored in user directories are private.
“Porn modes” and sandboxing
One problem for programs like Window Washer is that browsers now have privacy features that work even when different people are using the same Windows user account. In Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, the feature is called InPrivate browsing, in Chrome it’s Incognito mode, and in Firefox, Private Browsing. In these modes, the browser limits the information it stores in memory, and it dumps the data when you close the private browsing tab or window.
The private browsing feature is often known as “porn mode” but it’s something that most people should find useful. It’s a good idea to use it when researching topics that most people would want to keep private: for medical and some financial searches, for example. It’s also the best mode to use on openly shared workspace or cybercafe PCs.
Another way to protect your privacy is to run programs inside their own virtual “sandbox” where they won’t affect the rest of the operating system. This also helps protect you from malware. Sandboxie is the best known free program for Windows, and I first mentioned it in Ask Jack in 2008. It is free for personal use, cheap to register, and commercial licenses are available.
I’m not aware of any good free alternatives to Sandboxie.
When you’ve finished browsing with a web browser (or another program) inside Sandboxie, everything is thrown away. The next step up from that is to throw away the whole operating system environment. This is most commonly done using a Linux Live CD, or by running a version of Linux from a USB thumb drive. This is a good way to browse the web using someone else’s PC without leaving a record. (The Enterprise version of Windows 8 also runs well from a thumb drive using Windows To Go.)
Anonymous web surfing
Note that none of the above will do much to protect your privacy while you are online. To do that, please see my answer from December 2012: How can I protect my privacy online? That answer included some information on hiding your IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is a frequently asked question.
As you know, everything on the internet has an internet address, which is written as a group of four numbers. The Guardian, for example, is at 18.104.22.168. Lots of different websites will tell you your IP address, such as What Is My IP?.
If you have a broadband internet connection, your IP address is likely to stay the same over long periods, and websites can use it (along with cookies and so on) to identify and track you. One solution to this problem is to connect to a different IP address before you connect to any websites. This intermediate address is called a proxy. If you connect via an anonymous proxy, websites will think you are coming from that address, not your real IP address.
In effect, the proxy also changes your apparent location. For example, if you use a US-based proxy server, websites will think you are in the USA.
Several website list free proxy servers for those who know how to use them, such as Proxy4free. However, most people are best advised to use an anonymous web-surfing site, or an encrypted “virtual private network” (VPN) service. This not only protects your privacy from websites, it also protects your privacy from your internet service provider (ISP) and any related government snooping.
Of course, VPN providers can still see what you are doing, and it is in their interests to protect themselves if you do things that are illegal or against their terms of service, eg spamming.
Free anonymous services tend to limit users to activities that don’t require a lot of bandwidth. Web-surfing is OK. Watching videos and downloading large files may be limited or blocked. I often use services such as AnonyMouse and US Web Proxy. (Tunlr is an alternative way of getting round regional blocking: it’s a free service that works by changing your DNS settings. It enables users to watch services such as Hulu outside the US, or use BBC iPlayer inside the US.)
It makes sense to subscribe to a VPN if you travel a lot and therefore use Wi-Fi in hotels and public spaces. It’s even more advisable if you perform high-value transactions that involve trading or banking.
If you need more security and privacy than a VPN provides, there’s TOR, The Onion Router. This was “originally developed with the US Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications”. Today, it is used by people who need to put privacy first, including dissidents, whistle-blowers, activists, journalists, police and some military personnel. However, it’s relatively slow and, for most ordinary users, not a general-purpose solution for internet privacy.