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This article, Protect your online ID, was last updated on 23 July 2008 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Technology articles.

We visited three libraries and three internet cafés and logged into their shared computers to see what electronic trail previous visitors had left behind.

A woman working at a public pc

We weren't given any advice on privacy in the libraries


In the libraries we weren't given any advice on privacy or security before we logged on. However, when we switched on the computer a screen appeared that told us that ‘the security of personal data can’t be guaranteed’.

A representative of one library told us that it ran a centralised filtering and safety system that was supposed to ‘deep freeze’ each PC after every session was terminated, although he couldn't explain what this meant.

Despite this ‘deep freezing’, on several of the library PCs we tested, launching the browser and visiting a webmail account revealed that the previous user’s email address automatically appeared.


Hotmail's default setting is to store your login details using a cookie. We obviously didn't know the user’s password so couldn't log on. However, a user could accidentally choose another Hotmail option to ‘Save my email address and password.’

This would make it possible for an identity thief to log on and browse the previous user’s emails, including saved messages containing private information and other login details.

We also found that on library PCs, the Autocomplete function was left on.

This means that it’s possible that boxes in certain online forms would contain sensitive personal information such as a person's name, address, sex, date of birth, mother’s maiden name and the like. Criminals could use these details to hijack someone’s identity.

A neon sign from an internet cafe

Be careful about the information you leave in an internet cafe

Internet cafes

The internet cafés didn't give us any advice about protecting our information before we logged on.

We were told that internet cafés use special software to manage their public computers. This software is supposed to ‘wipe’ all the personal data from the computer at the end of each session.

In addition, we were told that each computer’s hard disk undergoes a weekly image restore to remove all traces of user activity.

Login details

In one café, we found that if we clicked ‘Save my email address and my password’ in Hotmail and ended our session, our login info was retained when we began a new session on that machine.

Internet café software such as CyberMonitor has some advantages over the library systems we tested.

The café PCs did not allow us access to browser and internet settings, so that it was harder to access certain information within the browser (such as temporary internet files) and impossible to lower the privacy or security settings.

Ultimately, don't use public PCs to do online banking, and always ensure you don't leave any personal login details behind.