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10 Tips on Using Public Computers Safely

Using public computers at colleges, libraries, Internet cafes, airports, and copy shops can be relatively safe if you heed the following tips.

The browser keeps a copy of many things in its cache and it may be passwords or other sensitive bits of information. The next person on the computer may be savvy enough to recover this information.

Always Log Out

Make sure you log out of Web sites by clicking "log out" on the site. Do not just close the browser and think you are safe. The next person may be able to open the browser and find you are still logged in.

Disable the Autocomplete Feature

Many programs (especially browsers and instant messengers) include automatic login features that will save your user name and password. Disable this option so no one can log in as you.

Internet Explorer

Before you go to the Web, turn off the Internet Explorer feature that "remembers" your passwords.

1. click Tools | Internet Options | Content tab | AutoComplete

3. Click to clear both check boxes having to do with passwords.

Do not Save Passwords

Sometimes this feature is turned on, by mistake or on purpose. Make sure it is not enabled.

Internet Explorer

Go to Tools | Internet Options | Content. In the AutoComplete panel, click the Settings button and verify that the Prompt Me To Save Passwords check box is deselected. None of the other AutoComplete features needs to be enabled either, so deselect them as well.


Choose Tools | Options | Security and deselect Remember Passwords For Sites

Do not Leave the Computer Unattended

Especially with sensitive information on the screen. If you have to leave the public computer, log out of all programs and close all windows. Then erase your tracks.

Erase Your Tracks

Web browsers such as Internet Explorer keep a record of your passwords and every page you visit, even after you’ve closed them and logged out.

When you finish your use of a public computer, you should delete all the temporary files and your Internet history.

Internet Explorer 7

Click Tools and then Delete Browsing History > Delete All

Older Internet Explorer

  1. click Tools and then Internet Options
  2. On the General tab, under Temporary Internet files, click Delete Files, and then click Delete Cookies
  3. Under History, click Clear History
  4. Delete all the files in the temporary folder of your user account which you can find by browsing to C:\Documents and Settings\username\Local Settings\Temp

Firefox Browser

Go to Tools | Options, click the Privacy tab, and select Always Clear My Private Data When I Close Firefox. By default, this erases your browsing history, download history, saved form information, cache, and authenticated sessions. Click the Settings button and select the options to erase your cookies and saved passwords, too

Clear the Page File

The pagefile is the location on the hard disk that serves as virtual memory in Windows. Its purpose is to swap out data from RAM so that programs can operate as if they have more RAM available than you actually have installed in the computer. Anything that can be stored in memory can be stored in the pagefile. To have this automatically cleared on shutdown, you need to use Local Security Policy.

To access Local Security Policy, open Control Panel, double-click on Administrative Tools, and double-click on Local Security Policy. Then, click Security Options in the right-hand pane and scroll down to Shutdown: Clear Virtual Memory Pagefile. Double-click that item and make sure it’s enabled.

Note: On many public machines you won’t have the rights to get to Local Security Policy, and while this task can also be accomplished from the registry, on these machines you likely won’t be able to use regedit either. In this case, you can delete the page file manually. First you’ll have to change the settings in Windows Explorer. Click View | Folder Options and the View tab, then scroll down and click Show Hidden Files And Folders. Deselect the Hide Protected Operating System Files check box. Now, find the file named pagefile.sys. It is usually (but not always) on the C: drive. Delete it; a new one will be created when the system reboots

Reboot When Finished

When you’re finished using the public computer, the final thing you should do is a hard reboot. This will not only clear the pagefile, if you’ve enabled that option, but it will also clear out everything you did from the physical memory (RAM).

Create a Temporary Email Account

Most email accounts can forward to another one. If you are going away for a few days, create a temporary email account and forward your emails there. Once you are home, shut off forwarding and abandon the temporary email account.

Carry your Own Software

There are many software applications that can run off USB drives. For example, the portable Firefox browser will keep its cache and sensitive data on the USB drive, not the public computer's drive. Also you can save files to the USB drive rather than the public computer's disk drive.

PortableApps website contains a whole suite of portable apps...and they are free.

Watch for Snoops

When you use a public computer, be on the lookout for thieves who look over your shoulder or watch as you enter sensitive passwords to collect your information.

A cell phone camera or someone with a good memory could capture your information easily. Don't forget people can watch your hands and see what keys you press.

Do not Enter Sensitive Information into a Public Computer

These measures provide some protection against casual hackers who use a public computer after you have. If you can, use a USB drive to store your information.

When you get home, change the passwords of any accounts you logged into while on the road. This will mitigate anyone tampering with your account.

But keep in mind that an industrious thief might have installed sophisticated software on the public computer that records every keystroke and then e-mails that information back to the thief.

If you really want to be safe, avoid entering any sensitive information into any public computer.

Do not Forget to Take your USB drive

It happens. You get in a hurry and leave your USB drive (or floppy) on the public computer. You are forewarned.

Using Wireless Laptops in Public

Wireless laptops present a whole new set of security issues. Read about our laptop security tips.