From Wikileaks to Your Own Laptop | Who and How Your Data’s Stolen

Porn That Follow You: Can You Cover Up Your Internet Surfing

The Daily Beast

Are your private Internet habits permanently burned into your hard drive? Tom Weber on what your IT department knows about you—and whether it’s possible to fully cover your tracks.

It’s been an eventful year in the annals of privacy, from the new airport dilemma—digital strip search or physical pat-down?—to WikiLeaks’ reminder that today’s supposedly private emails may be tomorrow’s Internet fodder. The next possible frontier: your laptop.

Or more specifically, where you’ve surfed to on it? When the most powerful government on earth can’t keep its interoffice memos private, do your own secrets stand a chance?

Previously, The Daily Beast identified eight different groups of people with the ability to pry into your private Web surfing, from marketers who track your movements online to nosy neighbors snooping into your WiFi network. (See The Porn Spies in Your Laptop.) But one group intrigued us in particular: the office IT staffer or repair technician who may wind up working on your computer. Can an average person cover their tracks well enough to keep that guy on the corporate help desk from finding out that they’ve been spending time on, say, Manhunt.com? Are your habits safe from even that most everyday of snooper?

To learn more, we decided to concoct a test. Specifically, even if you’re scrupulously diligent about clearing the private data from your laptop, can you mask the details of, say, visits to X-rated sites? And if not, how long would it take a corporate IT technician to uncover evidence of your naughty surfing?

Try yes—and a half-hour or so.

That’s right. Thirty minutes of poking around by a skilled geek who gets their hands on your computer is more than enough to turn up what turns you on—even if you think you’ve cleared off your computer.

This isn’t just an academic question. When we began talking to IT staffers about data privacy, it was clear that they’ve seen it all. While they generally don’t snoop on purpose (mainly because they don’t have the time), users’ trails bubble up, such as when one technician we spoke with asked to diagnose a slow laptop, found a hard drive clogged with hardcore.

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