Are you happy for organisations to be logging which websites you visit?

You might assume that if you visit one website and then a completely different (and seemingly unrelated) one, there is no connection between the two and that neither of them would know about your visit to the other.

Homburg and binocularsAfter all, if you walked into one shop and then another, it would never cross your mind that your movements were being tracked. If you thought about it at length then it wouldn’t be difficult to work out that marketing people at John Lewis could tell if you’d bought something at Peter Jones in Sloane Square and then gone to Oxford Street and bought something at John Lewis. If you use the same credit card in both stores then they could work it out as they are the same company. If you didn’t want them to make the connection then you could have paid in cash.

Suppose, though, that you’ve merely walked in and out of HMV in Oxford Street (without even buying anything), and then yomped off to Muji in Whiteleys. You wouldn’t expect them to know in Muji that you’d just been in HMV (as far as I know they wouldn’t, so let’s not go overboard with the paranoia).

But that can happen in cyberspace. If a piece of software on one website has recorded your visit (on your own computer!), then a different website can access that information if the same software is installed on the second website as well as the first. The information is stored on your own computer in a small file called a “cookie”. I congratulate the inventor of that word for a magnificent piece of doublespeak. The word “cookie” conjures up ideas of pleasure, treats, sugar hits. The reality, though, is that a cookie is simply a text file containing information about a visit to a website.

Anyway, there is a growing unease about the way that far more information is being recorded about our web habits than we are aware of. This is why the EU introduced the badly-thought out “Cookie Law“.

Apart from the Cookie Law, a method is now being built into web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc) whereby we can state our wishes as to whether websites track our activity in this way. The theory is that this preference is then sent by the browser back to the website that we are visiting and that the website then behaves accordingly. This expression of preference is being called “Do Not Track”.

There are, however, a few rather nasty big flies in the ointment:

  • There is no agreement as to what “tracking” means.
  • Most websites don’t take any notice of the stated preference.
  • There is no rule or law that forces the website to take any notice.

Hmm…

The possible definitions of “tracking” could, for instance, embrace these ideas:

  • Do not track what I do on a website that can provide information for targeting me with advertising (eg I’m male, interested in books, and live in London).
  • Do not track the different sites that I visit (as this could allow inferences to be made about my behaviour, preferences etc).
  • Do not even track my movements within one site (eg which pages did I visit, in what order, and how long did I spend on each page).

BloodhoundThe World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is currently thrashing out the details of a standard agreement as to what tracking actually means. When that has been finalised there is likely to be legislation requiring websites to conform to the tracking preferences of website visitors.

At the moment, though, even if you are using a browser that enables you to set a preference for DNT (“do not track”) then it’s probably not switched on. In the next version of Internet Explorer (version 10) it will be switched on by default. In the meantime, Microsoft have published a web page that tells you whether the browser that you are using (and its version) includes the feature to request “DNT”.

If you visit this Microsoft page on Do Not Track, it will tell you if the browser you are using supports DNT and whether it is on. If your browser is IE9, for example, it will show that DNT is “supported”. Assuming that you are using Internet Explorer 9 to access this web page, you can then follow the instructions further down the same page to “express your preference not to be tracked in IE9”. Nothing will seem to happen when you do this. However, if you then hit the F5 button (which causes the screen to be refreshed) then you will see that it is now saying that DNT is “detected” rather than supported. This means that “DNT” is now switched on.

In other browsers:

  • If you are running IE8 with Vista or Windows 7 then it’s a good idea to upgrade to IE9. That option is not available if you are running Windows XP. IE8 does not support DNT.
  • To turn on DNT in the latest version of Firefox, go to Options, Privacy pane, and tick the box as illustrated.
  • Chrome doesn’t currently offer DNT.
  • In Safari, open Preferences, then Privacy, then tick the box next to “Ask websites not to track me”.
Firefox "Do Not Track" Control

The “Do Not Track” setting in Firefox

Despite all the shortcomings listed above, it wouldn’t do any harm to set your preference if you don’t want to be tracked.

Internet Explorer 9 logoIn the past, Internet Explorer updates were offered to the user as part of the Windows update process, but the user had to “co-operate” with the process and confirm that (s)he wished to install the new version. We all know that software updates seem like a nuisance and an interruption to whatever we are doing. It is always very tempting to click the “cancel” button and carry on as before.

The main reason why this is not such a good idea with new versions of Internet Explorer is that a large proportion of the unpleasant malware and suchlike that gets onto our computers does so by slipping past the browser and into our systems. Older versions of Internet Explorer (or, indeed, any other browser) are inherently less secure than new ones. It makes sense to update to new versions if you don’t have a compelling reason not to.

But apart from the inconvenience of stopping what we are doing so that the new version can be installed, we may also be irritated by the fact that the new version doesn’t look or behave the same as the old one. For instance, the trend in recent versions of most web browsers (including Internet Explorer) has been to go for a more “minimalist” look. This means that there is more room on the screen to display the web page we are looking at, but it’s irritating to realise that the “home” button or the “bookmarks” button has disappeared or moved somewhere new.

And when it comes to upgrading to Internet Windows Explorer 9, other irritations include:

The “download” dialog box that used to appear in the middle of the screen to confirm that we definitely do want to download the file we’ve just asked for, has moved to the bottom of the screen and became much less obvious. It now looks like this:

Run Or Save Dialog Box

I wonder how many minutes I’ve wasted staring semi-vacantly at the screen waiting for that dialog box to appear, only to realise eventually that it’s at the bottom and not directly in front of my eyes (Note to my computer support clients: I’ve never ever done this on your time. I only ever waste time when I’m in front of my own computer).

Another thing that is really annoying lots of Internet Explorer 9 users is the box that often pops up at the bottom of the screen that looks like this:

IE9 SpeedUp Dialog Box

What’s happening here is that Internet Explorer has noticed that one or more “add-ons” (ie bells and whistles) that you have bolted on to your Internet Explorer is slowing down the opening up of your browser. Not wanting to get the blame itself for slow opening, Internet Explorer times the opening of these add-ons and pops up the box when one of them exceeds a threshold for the time it takes to load. If you click on the button on this popup bar marked “Choose add-ons” you can see which ones are slow to load. In the example below, it is the Samsung AnyWeb Print that is causing the popup because it is taking longer to load than the threshold of 0.20 seconds

Disable Add-On Dialog Box

What’s annoying everyone is that there’s no way of turning off this “feature”. The only way of stopping the popup from happening is to either disable the guilty add-on (in this case the Samsung AnyWeb Print) or increase the threshold so high that it never gets triggered. You can change the threshold by clicking on the button that currently says “0.20 seconds”. There isn’t any way to tell Internet Explorer to just mind its own business and stop telling tales on the slow add-ons. No doubt this feature was introduced as an answer to critics who said that Internet Explorer was loading slowly, but you’d think it perfectly reasonable to be able to turn this “feature” off entirely.

Anyway, the point I was going to make – before “Mr Grumpy” took over – is that Microsoft are now changing to a system whereby Internet Explorer is going to be invisbly and automatically updated as part of the regular Windows Updates process. This means that we are going to just find that Internet Explorer looks and feels different without warning.

If you don’t want this to happen, there are “toolkits” to stop updating from becoming automatic and Microsoft say that they will be building the automatic upgrading option into the settings of the browser itself at some time in the future. See The Windows Blog for further information.

So, at any time soon (unless you install a toolkit) you may find that your Internet Explorer has been updated to version 9 without your explicit approval. My own recommendation, though, is to accept this change without thinking of blocking it. The irritations of the popups are nowhere near as serious as the possible damage that could be wreaked by something nasty getting past your older version of Internet Explorer. And looking at it from a wider perspective, if this move means that more people are better protected then that’s bad news for the malware peddlars and good news for the rest of us.

Firefox logoChrome logoAnd if you don’t like it, you can always switch to Chrome or Firefox, or another browser….. See my earlier blog on browsers for more information.

F11 keyI often say, when delivering computer training, that it’s not worth trying to learn all the keyboard shortcuts that you come across as there are just too many of them. However, I recommend noting new ones from time to time and seeing if they’re worth committing to memory. Here’s one such – the F11 key “toggles” the full-screen mode when using a browser in Windows (except when using Safari – which is a Mac program).

I’ll explain that bit by bit:

    • The function keys are those at the top of the keyboard numbered F1 – F12. They perform different functions in different places and in different programs. See my blog on Function Keys for further information.
    • A browser is the program that you use to view web pages. The most popular browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, and Safari. See my blog on browsers for further information.
    • Normally, when you are looking at a web page, a fair proportion of the screen is taken up with toolbars, status bar, taskbars and the like. You may be doing far more scrolling up and down to see the content of the web page itself than you would like. Hitting the F11 key maximises the size of the window and hides all the un-necessary stuff – leaving you to concentrate on the web page itself. Hitting the F11 key again puts the window back to the way it had previously looked.
    • A “toggle” switch is a bit of computer jargon that you may come across from time to time. It means a switch that is operated in the same way irrespective of its current setting. Imagine a light switch in the form of a cord. If the light is off and the cord is pulled then the light goes on. If the light is on and the cord is pulled then the light goes off. This, therefore, is a toggle switch. You pull the cord and the light changes its current state. So, in the case of the F11 button, repeatedly hitting it while viewing a web page turns the full-screen view on and off.

    Clipart star
    Internet Explorer 9 Favorites

    Two clients asked me for computer support this week after their favorites disappeared following an upgrade to Internet Explorer 9. If you can’t find yours, don’t panic – they’re there. It’s just that Microsoft is following the trend of making their browser look less cluttered. Look for the cluster of three icons at the top righthand corner of the screen. It looks like this:

    IE9 Favorites Icon

    The middle icon of these three is for Favorites. If you click on the star it will open a window with your Favorites displayed. This is a toggle switch so clicking on the star again will hide them again.

    If you are also missing your Favorites Bar (that used to display your favorite links across the top of the screen), then you can set this to display – as well as other items – by clicking on the relevant option that pops up if you right-click on the star icon. Just to emphasise that – you RIGHT-click on the star to display the toolbar options menu. The menu that pops up is like this:

    Menu of options for displaying IE9 Favorites

    Select or de-select the various bars by clicking on them (yet more toggles). Items that are currently being displayed have a tick next to them.

    In fact, the way that the Favorites works in IE9 is very similar indeed to the way that it works in Firefox 6, except that Firefox calls them Bookmarks (which does have the merit of not upsetting pedantic Brits like me who were taught how to spell properly).

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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