Stealth surfing

When you participate in an online community - whether it's a chat room, a newsgroup, or an instant messaging service - you forfeit privacy. Though you choose the people you want to chat with, those you don't want to deal with can contact you or lurk and find out about you, because it's an open community. At worst, people with software that gathers e-mail addresses from Web sites or chat channels may collect your information and sell it to bulk e-mailers.

Fake your return address: when newsgroups or chat rooms demand your e-mail address, don't give them your real one. Deja.com's newsgroup service will provide you with an e-mail address you never need check. Or you can subscribe to a free e-mail service and turn on its full spam filter to prevent unwanted e-mails.

Turn IM off when you're not on: don't run AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, Yahoo Pager, or other instant messaging chat software all the time. With AIM, your chat name is active on the messaging server, and people can tell that you're online and how long you've been there, or that your connection has been inactive for a given period of time. Don't run the program every time Windows starts up. Select Start-Run, type MSCONFIG, and press . Under Startup, locate the offending software, click its box to remove its check mark, click OK, and then restart Windows.

Restrict access: with AIM and other chat services, casual acquaintances who knows your e-mail address can easily tell when you're online and when you're away from your office. Restrict their access by not broadcasting your presence: select File-My Options-Edit Preferences, click Controls, and under "Who can contact me", name only the people on your buddy list, create an even smaller list of people, or block everybody if you wish. At the bottom of the screen, select Nothing about me to prevent people who know your e-mail address from finding your screen name.

Keep it secret: these measures will not protect the privacy of your instant messages or files you ex- change using AIM 3 and other chat clients. The only way to protect your con-versations and exchanged files is to encrypt them.

Boomerang Software's (www.boomerangsoft-ware.com) free Secure Shuttle Transport chat client uses RSA encryption and its own secure servers to shuttle the information. It doesn't share buddy lists with other chat software, so you have to convince your most confidential chatting buddies to migrate, too. For conversations you really don't want overheard, it's worth it.

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