Internet & Email Safety (FAQ)
The internet is a great source of information, and email can be an excellent 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. They are described through the links below. If your abuser knows his or her way around computers it might be better for you to use a computer outside the home – at a library, school, internet café or a friend’s house.
Questions and Answers about Internet Safety
- Can my activity on the internet really be tracked? For example, could my abuser tell what sites I have visited?
- I’m not sure what type of browser I use. How can I find out?
- Is there anything I can do to prevent someone from seeing what sites I have been on?
- I know that web sites sometimes collect information about visitors to their sites. Should I be concerned about this?
- I’m worried that my abuser can read my email messages. What can I do?
- Can I prevent someone from seeing information in my email address book?
- I’ve heard that that “instant messaging” is a quick way to send and receive messages. Is it any more or less secure than email? Can my abuser read the messages I’ve sent and received through instant messaging?
- What about Newsgroups, Forums, and Listserves? Do I need to be concerned about privacy issues?
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 your abuser is comfortable with computers, and sees that you have cleared all the cache and history 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 they cannot have access to – for example, at a library, a friend’s house, or at work.
We provide some information about how to clear your cache and history files, but urge you think about whether this is a good idea before you do it. How you do this depends on what browser you are using. Your browser is the software on your computer that lets you search the internet and display internet pages.
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. Is there anything I can do to prevent my abuser from seeing what sites I have been on?
The cache and history files on your computer show what sites you have recently visited. You can empty your cache and clear your history files after each time you have used your computer.
But you should very cautious about clearing all your cache and history files. If your abuser is comfortable with computers, and sees that you have cleared all the cache and history files on your computer, they might get angry or suspicious. If that is a possibility, it would be better for you to use a computer they cannot have access to – for example, at a library, a friend’s house, or at work.
Another option you have is to delete only specific sites from your cache and history files. If you are comfortable with computers, you may want to do this. Your browser will have instructions about how to delete specific files from you cache and history.
If you think it is safe to clear your cache and history files, how you do this will depend on what type of computer you are using (a PC or a MacIntosh) and your browser.
Do not empty all the cache and history files on your computer if you think that your abuser will notice. If you are comfortable with computers, follow your browser instructions to delete specific files from your cache and history. It may be safest for you to use a computer your abuser cannot have access to – for example, at a library, a friend’s house, or at work.
4. I know that web sites sometimes collect information about visitors to their sites. Should I be worried 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 are written to your hard drive, and then decide whether to accept or reject it. Or you could set your computer to not accept cookies at all.
Some sites require cookies to be enabled in order to function properly, particularly those with online forms or login areas.
5. I’m concerned that my email messages will be read by my abuser. What can I do?
If you are using an email program such as Outlook and your abuser has access to your computer, he or she will easily 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 your 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.
6. Can I prevent someone from seeing information in my email address book?
Outlook Express and Outlook are common mail programs. These programs automatically place the email address of someone you have replied to in your Address Book. You can turn off this feature.
7. I’ve heard that “instant messaging” is a quick way to send and receive messages. Is it any more or less secure than email? Can my abuser read the messages I’ve sent and received through instant messaging?
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, AOL each have slightly different privacy protection features.
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.
8. 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.
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