As useful and sometimes irreplaceable as they are, public computers are a mixed blessing. When they first started appearing in Internet cafes, airports, and libraries back in the day, privacy wasn’t that much of a buzzword, nor was malware.
Now that the Internet is ubiquitous, and a lot of people use webmail, social networks, and e-banking services, the data left behind a random PC usage session could be highly sensitive or even fingerprintable.
With public computers, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to retrieve somebody else’s private details unless the target user adopts countermeasures. The same holds true for any machine, friend’s or colleague’s, that you may have to use temporarily for whatever reason.
Keeping your personal data intact in these scenarios isn’t difficult. All it takes is a little bit of common sense and a few simple tech-level steps. Let’s highlight some basic recommendations to stay on the safe side when using a computer other than your own and also deleting your private details.
#1. Surf the Web Wisely
If possible, consider downloading and installing a separate web browser for your computer usage session. Take a minute or two to find out what browsers are currently installed on the machine and get a different one up and running. This way, you can simply reset it to its default state when finished, or simply uninstall it altogether. During the uninstall process, be sure to opt out of saving your personalized data, which most web browsers suggest in a separate dialog.
If you decide to use a browser that’s already on the PC, refrain from using Internet Explorer as it’s notorious for gaping security holes. Another good idea is to benefit from the incognito mode built into popular web browsers, including Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera, and Edge. This remarkable feature is there to make sure that the history, searches, temporary files, cookies and login information are not recorded. However, the browser will still save your downloads and bookmarks. Furthermore, the Internet service provider and the sites you visit will have access to your data.
To enter this mode in Firefox and Opera, go to the main menu and select “New Private Window”. In Chrome, select the “New incognito window” option. If Microsoft’s new Edge web navigation software is your pick, be advised it’s not that incognito. Edge is certainly so much better than IE in terms of privacy and security, but a recent research proved that the InPrivate feature leaves quite a bit of detail behind and stores them in the browser’s WebCache file.
All in all, considering some exceptions and potential weak links that are in place even if you go into private browsing mode, it’s preferable that you reset the browser of choice to its original defaults, or install a separate browser and completely remove it from the public computer when you are done. The latter option, though, may not be applicable in case the local network policy blocks third-party software installations. And keep in mind that simply clearing the history and cookies is an unreliable approach.
#2. Log In with Caution
A worthwhile recommendation is to click “No” or “Cancel” on any prompt that says “Keep me logged in” or “Remember me” when logging into a random online account. Also, abstain from performing any financial transactions on a workstation that’s not yours, unless of course that’s an absolute must under the circumstances you’re in.
Remember cyber crooks may tamper with an insecure Internet connection, especially if it’s a public Wi-Fi hotspot. By pulling off a man-in-the-middle attack, perpetrators can intercept everything you type and subsequently access your e-banking panel and other profiles.
A reliable way to avoid the worst-case scenario is to set up multi-factor authentication for your most sensitive accounts such as online banking, social networks, and webmail. This technique prevents remote criminals from accessing these accounts even if they get hold of your username and password. That’s because an additional secret key is required, which is automatically sent to you in a text message every time you attempt to log in.
#3. Steer Clear of Malware
Some administrators of public PC networks don’t take security seriously enough to provide a virus-free computing experience to their customers. This is why it’s more than reasonable to make sure there is no spyware, adware, tracking cookies and keyloggers on the machine. The present-day infections can record one’s keystrokes and thus obtain the victim’s personally identifiable information.
Since it may be problematic to complete lengthy software installations on an untrusted public computer, you can use a free online virus scanner to detect malicious code. These programs leverage a cloud-based technology to identify all prevalent malware strains without downloading a large signature database. The scan shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. If the app reports threats like spyware, it’s not a good idea to proceed without removing those first.
#4. Use Privacy Software
Thankfully, there are solutions that you can use to automate the process of clearing your tracks from a public or someone else’s computer. Virtual private networking applications can do the trick anonymizing your web surfing session. They engage different servers in tunneling your web traffic and hiding some of your sensitive details, including the geolocation and IP address. Most VPNs also encrypt the user’s traffic with the strong AES-256 algorithm, adding an extra layer of privacy to the mix.
Furthermore, programs like CCleaner work wonders deleting your confidential data. An applet like that can easily erase the entire software usage history and web browsing history in a matter of seconds. Note that the default setup usually won’t delete your saved passwords, so tick the appropriate checkbox manually.
#5. Look out for Shoulder Surfers
While trying to secure the software facet of using an untrusted PC, a lot of people simply forget that the danger is just as likely to emanate from the good old physical world. You’d be surprised how much information ill-minded individuals can learn by snooping on your computer session over your shoulder. Do not underestimate this somewhat archaic social engineering technique – it still works.
Just to recap:
- Avoid any and all sensitive transactions, including financial ones, when using another person’s or public computer.
- Consider completely resetting the web browser after the fact; use multi-factor authentication.
- Make sure there’s no malware on the PC.
- Take advantage of privacy software.
- Don’t let snoops see what you type.
With these tips in your protective arsenal, you should be good to go.
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