Surfing on the sly isn’t guaranteed with Internet Explorer 8

While many might applaud the built-in privacy features of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), tech analysts caution they may not completely shroud your Internet activities.

The InPrivateBrowsing mode of IE8 – the public beta2 of the browser was released Wednesday – makes it easier for people to surf the Web on their computers without leaving a trace of sites they visited.

The feature quickly earned the moniker “porn mode.”

But computer users with an urge to check out job sites or explicit images while at work should think twice before clicking to IE8’s download site, says a Canadian technology analyst.

While InPrivateBrowsing is a “fantastic feature,” it doesn’t guarantee totally private surfing, according to Carmi Levy, senior vice-president for strategic consulting at AR Communications Inc. in Toronto.

Levy, who likes to tinker with browser settings himself, noted that IE8’s protective cloak goes only as far as the browser and workstation level.

“On the surface, your computer might not show where you’ve been, but the machine is still connected to corporate resources, such as servers and proxy servers, which can track traffic.”

Apart from this, he said, pockets of data might still be contained on the computer’s hard drive.

He likened to situation to law enforcement agents carrying out a wiretap: “The target’s phone does not have the ability to record conversations, but Bell and gadgets used by the police do.”

When enabled, the InPrivateBrowsing feature will not save browsing and Search history, cookies, form data, and passwords. The feature will also automatically clear browser cache at the end of each session.

Mozilla Corp. said it will be adding a similar feature to the upcoming version of Firefox – Firefox 3.1.

Both IE7, Microsoft’s current browser, and Mozilla’s Firefox 3, already allow users to block cookies and lets them delete private information after each session, such as temporary files and browsing history. But users can’t turn off the collection entirely.

Firefox 3.0, which was released in mid-June, was supposed to have a similar privacy mode but the feature was pulled just before completion of the browser. There’s no word if it will be back when Firefox 3.1 comes out in 2009.

In the beta 2 version of IE8, apart from the InPrivateBlocking mode,  
Microsoft will also enhance the browser’s Delete Browsing History feature, and add an option to preserve a bookmarked site’s cookies.

“Many users are concerned about so-called over-the-shoulder privacy, or the ability to control what their spouses, friends, kids and co-workers might see,” wrote Andy Zeigler, an IE programmer in a blog, explaining the rationale behind InPrivateBrowsing.

“If you’re using a shared PC, a borrowed laptop from a friend or a public PC, sometimes you don’t want other people to know where you’ve been,” he said.

One person commenting on Zeigler’s post wrote: “You know as well as I do this feature is built for porn.”

But Levy disputes this notion. Not everyone using privacy features – such as those offered by IE8 – are necessarily interested in porn, he said.

Rather, the features can benefit users concerned about spam, phishing and the pervasive tracking of Web activities by firms determined to use this data for targeted marketing and ad campaigns.

“This is another weapon the average person can use in the battle against spam and the spread of malware.”

The benefits for businesses, on the other hand, are not significant, as most companies already employ servers and firewalls to protect the network, Levy said.

When IE8 finally goes live, it may benefit organizations that have remote workers using mobile devices outside the corporate firewall, said Levy.

“Basically it’s another layer against spam, [and] can assure users of shared computers that their confidential information is safe from the machine’s next user.”

Companies engaged in online marketing or Web advertising might take an initial hit from IE8’s blocking features, but Levy also believes this will be temporary.

“Initially this tool will prevent tracking and reduce unwanted e-mails or ads but the online marketing industry is very flexible and agile. I won’t take long for companies to find a way around it.”

For computer users though, Levy reiterates his earlier warning: “There’s no entirely private surfing. The old rules still apply. If you know you shouldn’t be in that site don’t go there.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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