Student site shows you where you've been


Web2.0collage Web2.0Collage is a clever site that creates collages based on the icons of sites you've visited. But using it should remind you that your browser history is far from private.

University of Waterloo student Holden Karau decided to raise awareness of online privacy issues by creating a web-based application that turns a visitor's browser history into a miniature work of art.

And while the artistic merits of the collages that Web2.0Collage.com creates can certainly be debated, one thing is clear: our web surfing patterns are not private and can be easily accessed by any website that implements the same JavaScript code as Web2.0Collage.

The example image above was taken from my (non-cleared) browser history. While it doesn't reveal much of interest (WordPress, CNET, YouTube, LinkedIn, Digg and other common sites are represented) as it was taken from my primary work machine on which I tend to practice *very* careful surfing, my home computer might tell a different story!

Savvy web users already know that it's a good idea to regularly purge your browser's history and there are many browsers and browser add-ins that will automate or simplify this task for you. But many more people out there never do so, whether through ignorance or laziness. This lapse, Karau points out, is something to be wary of:

"Since browser history sniffing, which can be used to determine the websites a person has visited, is easily accomplished without the users knowledge or consent, the potential implications surrounding this loss of privacy are frightening."

If you're wondering what the possible risks are of having your browser history read by websites you visit, here's a partial list of potential hazards:

  • Internet fraudsters can tailor their "phishing" (where they attempt to steal account and often financial information) based on which bank site you use
  • Increasingly oppressive regimes can covertly observe the browser history of their citizens and us it to crack down on journalists, or citizens viewing independent media
  • Job application sites could silently disqualify candidates based on their surfing habits
  • Employers could use it to see which employees have been visiting job sites
  • Insurers could raise premiums based on sites you visit
  • Unscrupulous online merchants could dynamically shift prices on goods using demographic profiles constructed from browsing histories.

To clear your browser's history do the following:

in Internet Explorer
– Tools > Internet Option > Clear History

in Firefox
– Tools > Clear Recent History
(for better security, Tools > Options > Privacy Tab > check "clear history when Firefox closes"

in Google Chrome
– Wrench icon > Clear Browsing Data > select the options you want

in Apple Safari
– History > Choose 'Clear History' at the bottom of the pull down menu

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2 comments

  1. Jay

    Simon,

    Thank you so much for posting this article. I tell ALL my friends, infact anyone I meet and talk tech with… the same tips you have just mentioned.

    One point that deserves repeating is that people do not clear browsing history before and after going to certain sites like Online Banking, Job Applications and even your favorite E-mail client.

    What is worse that people have automated the login process for almost all of their credentials for e-mail, blog sites, facebook, shopping carts and even online banking.

    The worst part is that some people have asked the computer to remember the answers to security questions for online banking… and I say to them… you might as well make a HUGE poster with all that information and hang it around your neck when you walk in the mall. It doesn't take much to go in the storage locations and look up this sensitive information.

    This might sound cold/curel.. but when I hear people saying … "oh my account got hacked" I cant help but laugh at them… because I know exactly why and probably how it happened.

    For all those fortunate enough to read Simon's article and my ranting… :) use this free utility from Piriform Ltd. It is called the Ccleaner (The C stands for CRAP). It cleans the browsing history, autofill entries (if selected), old temporary files hogging system resources and much more.

    It also has a FREE built-in registery cleaner. Only drawback of the free part is that you have to run it 2 or 3 times (assuming you havent run it ever before) to catch all the errors but hey its free so why not.

    Here is the website for it.
    http://www.ccleaner.com/

    Also, checkout the FASTEST and Free degfragment tool called AusLogics Disk Defrag at
    http://www.auslogics.com/en/software
    look under the free section)

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