Think you're in control when you surf the Internet? Think again. You may know what cookies are, but you don't always know how they're used. Web bugs--which you may not have heard about--are also out there. And what about those really annoying pop-up ads that seem to multiply constantly?
If you're looking to regain a modicum of control, you might check out Guard-IE Ad-Blocking Suite, now available in version 2.2. Made by FailSafe Technologies Inc., Guard-IE offers a combination of Internet privacy tools and ad-blocking tools for Internet Explorer. The application is currently available online in a free 20-day trial; the full version costs US$25.
"Our plan was to produce a comprehensive application suite, one that offered multiple functions and that could be integrated directly into the Web browser," says John Kokinis, FailSafe's cofounder. "We offer ad-blocking and privacy features in one application; other applications offer only one or the other."
Guard-IE lets users customize its tools, Kokinis says. Rather than blocking all pop-up ads or all cookies, you can decide to allow select cookies or ads. Users can create a "white list" of sites from which they will accept cookies, or a list of sites from which pop-up ads will be allowed.
At your fingertips
Once installed, Guard-IE resides right in your browser: The application adds several icons to your toolbar, offering one-click access to its key features. Even if you've configured it to block all pop-up ads, you can change your mind while browsing. By clicking an icon, you can enable pop-up ads to appear--though why you'd want those little browser windows floating around your screen is anybody's guess.
You also can decide to delete the cookies sitting on your hard drive--and you won't be able to miss their arrival anymore: A digital sound effect goes off every time a cookie lands on your PC. The application's counter tells you just how many cookies you have and how many you gain at each site.
Guard-IE's privacy tools go beyond crushing cookies: It can even delete your Internet history. You can set the application to erase everything from typed URLs and temporary Internet files to your password and form histories whenever you close your browser.
The application also guards the look of your browser. Guard-IE will prevent scripts from resetting your home page, and allows you to prevent sites from moving or resizing your browser window. It does not have the ability to block banner ads, though Kokinis says the company is working on that feature for a future version of the software.
About those bugs
And then there's the issue of Web bugs, those mysterious little files embedded in some Web sites. Web bugs are similar to cookies: Site operators use them to track visitors. But despite their ominous-sounding name, Web bugs are not always a threat: Some sites (including PCWorld.com), use them to count site visitors without gathering users' personal data.
Whether they're innocent or not, you might never look at Web bugs the same way after you use Guard-IE. A spider-shaped icon in the browser toolbar lights up and plays a sound whenever a Web bug is present on a page. Clicking on the icon changes the Web bugs (which are typically tiny, undetectable images) into large eyeballs that glance across the page. If you've ever worried that someone is watching you, these eyeballs won't exactly be a relaxing sight. Clicking on the eyeball brings you to a screen that tells you the source of the Web bug and its likely purpose.
Guard-IE can't block Web bugs, but that ability also may come in a future version, Kokinis says. He adds that the purpose of the software is not to scare Internet users, but to educate them. The application offers tips and resources for educating users about Web bugs and cookies--and how to know the good from the bad.
"This really isn't a geek product. It's made for the average user," Kokinis says. "The general consciousness about these issues is being raised, and we certainly try to explain to users what they need to know."