The Internet is a great source of information and email can be a great way to communicate with family and friends. Be aware that someone who has access to your computer may be able to see what sites you have visited, or read your email messages.
There are steps you can take to make it more difficult for someone to track your activities. Below are questions and answers for some of the ways you can cover your internet activities.
If your abuser knows their way around a computer it may be safer to simply use a computer out of the house - at a friends, library, school, internet cafe, etc.
1. Can my activity on the internet really be tracked? For example, could my abuser tell what sites I have visited?
Yes, there are a few ways that someone could easily find out what web sites you have visited.
Computers have what is called a cache file. The cache (pronounced "cash) automatically saves web pages and graphics. Anyone who looks at the cache file on your computer can see what information you have viewed recently on the Internet.
Also, most web browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape keep a list of the most recent web sites and links that you have visited in a history file. You can look at your own history by clicking on the history button on your toolbar.
It is possible to clear the cache and history files so that your computer doesn't keep a list of the sites you have visited. But you should be very cautious about doing this.
If you abuser is comfortable with computers, and sees that you have cleared all the cache and files on your computer (including the sites they have visited), they could become suspicious or angry. If that is a possibility it would be better for you to use a computer out of the house that your abuser does not have access to.
2. I'm not sure what type of browser I use. How can I find out? Most people have Internet Explorer, Netscape or AOL as their browser software. If you are not sure which browser is on your computer, you can usually find out by clicking on the "HELP" button at the top of your screen and selecting the last menu option (use the arrow keys to scroll down). This should provide information about your browser, including the version number. Software developers release new versions when they add new features or make changes. The higher the version number, the more recent the software you have on your computer.
3. I know that web sites sometimes collect information about visitors to their sites. Should I be concerned about this?
Web sites may track their visitors and their actions for a variety of reasons. To do this, they sometimes store small bits of information (known as "cookies") on your computer. If a web site "remembers" you when you visit again by displaying your first name, which you entered on a previous visit, it's because it has stored a cookie on your computer. If your computer has cookies, your abuser might be able to identify sites you have visited.
You can set your browser to warn you before a cookie is written to your hard drive and then decide whether to accept or reject it. Or you could set your computer not to accept cookies at all.
NOTE: Some sites require cookies to be enabled in order to function properly, particularly those with online forms or login areas.
4. I'm worried that my abuser can read my email messages. What can I do?
If you are using an email program such as Outlook and your abuser has access to your computer, he will be able to read your email.
Delete sensitive emails that you send and receive. Remember the second step: after you have deleted a message, go to the "Deleted Mail" folder in Outlook, highlight the message and delete it again. (Be aware that the message may still reside somewhere on your computer. A trained technician may be able to recover it.)
If you are worried about the privacy of your email on your home computer, you might want to set up a free email account for yourself on the web. If you set up an account with Hotmail or Yahoo, for example, your email messages will be stored on the Hotmail or Yahoo server instead of your own computer.
To protect access to your email account, choose a password that you will be able to remember, but that will be hard for someone else to guess. Do not write down the password; you could write down a clue for yourself to help you remember the password.
5. What can I do to protect information about people or organizations that I send email to or receive email from?
Outlook Express and Outlook are common mail programs. These programs automatically place the email of someone you have replied to in your address book. You can turn off this feature.
6. I've heard that "instant messaging" is a quick way to send and receive messages. Is it more or less secure than email? Can my abuser read the messages I've sent and received through instant message?
Instant messaging (sometimes called IM) is the ability to easily see whether a friend is connected to the Internet and, if they are, to exchange messages with them. Generally, it is good practice not to transmit sensitive and confidential information through instant messengers, since IM could be intercepted and read.
If you use instant messaging and your abuser has access to your computer, be aware of and make use of the privacy features of the program you are using. MSN Messenger, ICQ and AOL each have slightly different privacy protection features.
For example, if you are using MSN Messenger, select "Options" and then "Messages"; unclick the checkbox for message history.
Make sure you DO NOT have your computer set to automatically keep a history of your messages if you are concerned about your abuser reading them.
7. What about Newsgroups, Forums and Listserves? Do I need to be concerned about privacy issues?
Messages you post to a public newsgroup or forum are available for anyone to view, copy and store. Also, your name, email address and information about your service provider are usually available as part of the message.
Most public postings made on the Internet are archived in searchable files. That means that your public messages can be accessed by anyone at anytime.
Online newsletters and listserves are sent to a mailing list of subscribers. If you want to privately reply to someone who has posted a message in an online newsletter or listserve, be sure you address it with that person's address, not to the newsletter address. Otherwise, you might find that your message has been sent to everyone on the mailing list.