Internet users have every reason to be concerned about the privacy of their viewing habits and personal information, especially when they access the Internet from a shared system. In fact, with very little effort, a hacker could pull a user’s browsing history and personal details from almost any system and use them maliciously. While most users don’t enjoy the luxury of hiding their browsing habits when they access the Internet at work, a public facility, or when using a shared system, it’s still important to support products that protect certain information, such as credit card numbers and Social Security numbers. This Daily Feature reviews one such product that helps users protect their privacy: P.I. Protector, which is made by Winboot.com and distributed via a partnership with ImagineLAN.com.
P.I. Protector protects personal information
P.I. Protector runs under Windows 2000 or XP. Internet Explorer 6 or better must be installed. To use P.I. Protector, you must purchase a USB storage device with a minimum of 16 MB of space. P.I. Protector uses the USB device to store browsing information, such as:
- Browser history log.
- Recent file list.
- URL autocomplete list.
- URL drop-down list.
- Temporary and cached files.
P.I. Protector works by intercepting this information before it’s written to the hard drive and sending it to the USB device instead. There are plenty of tools available to clean up after you’re finished with an Internet session, but P.I. Protector is somewhat unique in its “interception” mode of deployment. To test this feature, I bought a new USB key—a TREK 32-MB Thumbdrive—as well as P.I. Protector. I installed both the USB key and the P.I. Protector software on a Windows XP machine.
Ordering leaves room for improvement
One area of improvement for P.I. Protector would be in the ordering process. In this era of automated instant gratification, having to wait almost a day for a link to the P.I. Protector download and serial number isn’t convenient. Granted, I did order the software after 10:00 P.M. Nonetheless, for those who prefer snail-mail, ImagineLAN offers a shipped version of the product. After my order was placed and verified, the folks at ImagineLAN sent me an e-mail message with the URL for the P.I. Protector installation software, as well as my serial number. The download is only available for 48 hours after the message is sent, so make sure you check your e-mail after you order this product to be sure you download it in time.
Installing P.I. Protector
To begin the installation, I inserted my USB storage key and made sure that it worked. Installing these types of devices under Windows XP is as simple as sticking it in a free USB port. After verifying the USB storage key worked, I opened the installation file for P.I. Protector. The installer asks for two things:
- The serial number. The installer will not continue without it.
- A location to install the software. The installer recommends using the USB key as the installation location.
The installation process for this software is extremely simple, so even the least savvy of users should be able to handle it with little difficulty.
Using P.I. Protector
One of the things that I like about this product is that it’s not “in your face” because it doesn’t affect the normal operation of the system. If I want to protect only certain browsing activities, I simply enable P.I. Protector for that period of time, and when I’m done, I disable it. This feature is handy because now I’m not stuck with an unusable system should I lose the USB key.
To run P.I. Protector from the USB key, you simply double-click the executable from the PIP directory on the USB key, which brings up the product’s main menu (Figure A).
|You click the Turn On Private Browsing And Start Internet Explorer option on the main menu to enable P.I. Protector.|
Once started, P.I. Protector automatically starts Internet Explorer and browses to my home page. As a test to see if it’s really redirecting the items it claims to handle, you only need to check the Tools | Options | Internet Options menu (Figure B).
|Notice that temporary Internet files are written to a directory on my E: drive.|
The E: drive on my system happens to be the USB key I installed earlier. In checking the directory on that drive, I saw cookie entries as well as some temporary files.
When I’m done with the browsing session, I click the Turn Off Private Browsing button in P.I. Protector to reset Internet Explorer’s preferences to their previous values, in which it will resume writing information to the hard drive. Just stop and remove the USB storage device and it will appear as if nothing has changed on the system.
Some welcome conveniences
In addition to its ability to make your users’ Internet sessions private, P.I. Protector has a few options that make life a little more convenient. P.I. Protector has an Internet Portability feature that can import and export browser settings, including browser history, favorites/bookmarks, cookies, and/or cache (Figure C). I can see the value in having a portable option for cookies and bookmarks. For example, it would make research more convenient, since you wouldn’t have to manually keep track of your research data on more than one system.
If users often work between home and the office and need to transport documents between home and work, P.I. Protector can also transfer the contents of the “My Documents” folder back and forth between the USB device and the hard drive. Users who only need access to the data and not the applications will find this a very handy feature. Rather than lugging a laptop around or having to use a VPN connection, they can use their USB key instead.
|P.I. Protector’s browser settings transfer options.|
Browsing Trail: Privacy or paranoia
P.I. Protector also has the ability to delete your browsing history from your USB device and hard drive via the Browsing Trail tab (Figure D).
|The Browsing Trail tab has options for additional security.|
There are three ways to delete this information.
- A simple delete
- Overwrite and then delete
- And for the truly paranoid, overwrite the information seven times and then delete it
You also have the option of determining exactly what you would like to have deleted: favorites, history, cookies, and/or temporary Internet Explorer files.
I found this product to be very easy to use, unobtrusive, and true to its claims. It’s also very reasonably priced at $30 for the software. For users who need to use shared PCs and/or want to protect their personal information, or for people who want a convenient way to transfer files and browser settings between computers, it’s a good value for the money.
There is one caveat, but it’s about the USB key you need to buy to use the software, not about P.I. Protector itself. For the sake of privacy, be careful not to lose the USB key. If you neglect to wipe it before removing it, anyone who picks it up can access the information on it.