Using Public Computers

Public libraries, Internet cafes, and other customer-serving establishments have their own computers that customers may use to access the Internet. Are these computers safe for you to use?

Tales abound of public-access computers infected with viruses, spyware, and even key loggers, many deliberately planted there in order to elicit information from unsuspecting users. I recall specifically in 2004 a case where a person was arrested for installing a key logger program on a computer in a well-known copy services store in order to record users’ bank account numbers and passwords. This is technology gone awry.

Frequently, these computers are configured in a protected manner, so that users can only use a Web browser and nothing else. But, often, you can’t even view the browser’s security settings, much less change them. So how can you tell if one of these computers is safe? What kinds of things are safe to do on these computers? This article gives you the goods.

Scanning public computers for viruses

In most cases you won’t be able to access a public computer’s antivirus program to see if its signatures are up to date or to perform a scan. However, you can perform one of those online scans.

However, if you do find a virus, you may not be able to remove it (many of the online scanning programs only detect — but do not remove — viruses they may find). Better find another computer, but do the establishment (and your fellow customers) a favor and tell them that you have good reason to believe one of their computers has a virus. You may even be decorated as an expert and a hero! Well, if not, you should still feel good after doing your good deed for the day.

Scanning public computers for spyware

It’s a good idea to scan a public computer for spyware before you use it. If you use a public-access computer to log into a Web site, particularly one containing financial or personal information (such as a bank), are you willing to bet that the computer is free of spyware?

As of this moment, I’m not aware of online spyware scanners, but there may be one or more available by the time you read this. You can visit my Web site at www.computervirusesbook. com or browse the major antivirus company Web sites to see what’s available. It’s also possible that one of the current online virus scanners will also scan for spyware. This is a feature that the big antivirus companies will adopt very soon.

Staying clean and cleaning up

Some banking and other Web sites containing your personal information permit you to specify whether you’re using a public-access computer. I like to think that in such cases those Web sites prevent your personal information from lingering on the computer for some enterprising busybody to find.

But there are some other things you want to do if you’re able. Follow these steps to erase at least some of your tracks:

1. In Internet Explorer, choose Tools➪Internet Options.
The Internet Options dialog box appears.
2. Click the General tab (if it’s not already in view).

3. Click the Delete Cookies button.
Click OK if you get an additional dialog box that asks if you want to continue.
4. Click the Delete Files button.
5. In the Delete Files dialog box that appears, select the Delete All Offline Content option; then click OK.
6. Click the Clear History button.

These steps will cover most of your tracks on the computer from prying eyes. The process removes all your cookies, any temporary copies of Web pages you viewed, and the record of the sites you visited. If, however, you are not able to access Internet Options in Internet Explorer, you might consider holding off doing your really personal work until you can get back to your computer.