Cleanup in Aisle 451
Well, that depends on which list you mean. There are several crumb trails that can reveal your web whereabouts to others who might be snooping around your computer. Let's look at some ways to clear your digital tracks with the most popular browsers.
First, there's the address box (up near the top of the screen), where you type in web addresses (URLs) of sites that you want to visit. Those addresses accumulate in the dropdown box that you can access with the little down-arrow on the right of the address box, and some of them will display below the address bar as you enter URLs. This can be very handy or very embarrassing, depending on who's watching over your shoulder and where you've been.
And then there's the browser history, which logs the date, time and web address of every page you have visited. A lot of people are not aware that this history log even exists, so if it's YOU that's spying on your colleague, spouse or child, it's the first place to look. Just press Ctrl H and the History panel will appear on the left side of your browser screen.
Fortunately, it's very easy to clear out the address bar entries and the browser history. With Internet Explorer, click on Tools -> Internet Options and then whack the Clear History button. Firefox users, click on Tools -> Options, click on Privacy, then hit the Clear button next to History. That's it -- tabula rasa, squeaky clean.
If you're surrounded by non-techies, that should take care of the snoopers. But you may also want to remove some traces that more determined folks (i.e. "geeks") might find laying around on your hard drive. Namely, there is the browser cache, cookies and saved form data.
Firefox has a handy Clear All button on that Privacy page which will clear everything that your browser may store while you're browsing. If you want to clear these items selectively, there are individual Clear buttons for each.
With Internet Explorer, it's slightly more complicated. Go back to Tools -> Internet Options, and then press the Delete Cookies and Delete Files buttons. Now click on the Content tab, and hit both the Clear Forms and Clear Passwords buttons.
NOTE: I generally do NOT recommend that people delete their cookies. They're useful when it comes to customizing your browsing experience at many sites, and can save you the trouble of re-entering information on web forms. Anti-spyware programs that identify cookies as "threats" are silly and should be avoided. For more info on this see my article Eat Your Cookies.
For most users, that should erase all traces of where you've been hanging out in the digital domain. But there are a few more things to consider.
If you run a desktop search enhancer such as Google Desktop be aware that it may also catalog your browser history. You can clear items from this history, but it's a tedious process. You have to do a desktop search, click on Remove Items, select the offending items, then press the Removed Checked Results button. Over and over... I did find a program called Mil Shield which can clean your browser history and the Google Desktop history. It offers a free trial and costs US$29 if you want to purchase after the trial ends.
Do you have a software-based firewall? If so, it may have some caching built in. Check the firewall options to see if there's a way to clear the history and/or cache. The same goes for various browser plugins, such as Yahoo Toolbar, MSN Toolbar, etc. Poke around in the settings menus to see if there's a "clear my tracks" option.
If your computer is at work, your employer may monitor all Internet access. If you're not sure about this, or about your employer's Acceptable Use Policy, check with them. Or just don't go there at work. You know where... ;-)
Finally, if you have any adware, spyware or viruses on your system, all bets are off. These things are designed to violate your privacy and it's common for them to report your browsing habits back to Malware HQ. If you need help with scanning your system for spyware, adware and other unwanted pests, see my article Spy, Counter-Spy for details on how to protect yourself from those risks.