XP HOME: Protecting your data and privacy

In this column, we are reviewing some security tips to help keep your personal computer safe from prying eyes. Whether it is at work, or home, you should never be too careful in ensuring that your data and privacy is secure.

User accounts

The easiest way to protect your data is with user accounts. The Home version of Windows XP allows you to create three types of user accounts: Administrator, Limited and Guest.

When you installed Windows XP you should have created at least one Administrator account. In XP this is the most powerful user type as it allows you to change system settings as well as install and uninstall software.

In a home environment there is usually the need for only one Administrator account. Assigning Limited accounts to everyone else (especially the kids) prevents them from installing any rogue applications or making unnecessary system changes. Setting up additional users can be done by selecting User Accounts from the Control Panel.

User accounts on their own will not keep your personal data secure. You will need to take the extra step of making your personal folders private. You can do this by right-clicking the My Documents folder and selecting Properties. Click the tab and then under ‘Local sharing and security' select the ‘Make this folder private' checkbox. This option will only be available if your hard disk was formatted with the NTFS file system.

Passwords

It is a good idea to set up user accounts for everyone who uses your computer, but without adequate passwords they will do little to protect your data or privacy.

In a corporate setting, where very sensitive data is stored on computers and networks, complex password policies are often implemented to maintain system integrity. In a home environment it is not necessary to follow such rules, but it is still a good idea to assign a password of some kind to each account.

Having a password-protected screen saver kick in after a certain period of time will also prevent unauthorised access to your account if you forget to log out. To do this, open Display from the Control Panel and click on the Screen Saver tab. You can set which kind of screen saver should be displayed and how long the system should wait before activating it. To lock your computer whenever the screen saver is activated, make sure the "On resume, password protect" checkbox is enabled.

Covering your trail

Whether or not user profiles are implemented, many people are concerned about the data trail they may leave behind on a PC. After using a computer there are a number of things you can do to cover your tracks, the most important being cleaning the system's cache, history and recent documents.

To clear Internet Explorer's cache select Internet Options from the Tools menu. Under the General tab click the Delete Files button and confirm that you want to delete all offline content. You can also clear any cookies stored on your system and reduce the amount of disk space Internet Explorer uses to store Temporary Internet Files.

Just below the Temporary Internet Files section is the History section. This is where you can clear Internet Explorer's current history, or disable the History function completely by setting the ‘Days to keep history' option to zero.

The Recent Documents item in the Start Menu provides links to the documents on which you have most recently been working. To clear this list or to remove it from the Start menu, right-click the Start button and select Properties. Click on the Customize button and select the Advanced tab. At the bottom you will find the option to disable the recent documents list or to clear its current contents.

One final tip for preventing people from exploring any documents you've opened or Web sites you have accessed: turn off Internet Explorer's AutoComplete feature. To disable this useful but security-compromising feature, open Internet Explorer, click the Tools menu and select Internet Options. Under the Content tab click the AutoComplete button in the Personal Information section. Here you will be able to select what you want to use AutoComplete for and to clear the AutoComplete history.

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Kieran McNamee

PC World
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