PrivacyGuardian v3.0

Reviewed by: Mark Goldstein, January 2005
Published by: WinGuides Software
Requires: Windows 98 through XP
MSRP: $29.99

Privacy Guardian is designed to enhance computer privacy by ensuring that all traces of your Internet and general computer activities are permanently erased and unrecoverable on your PC. Information from every web site you visit is stored on your computer and recorded in hidden Windows locations including temporary files, cookies, the system registry and the index.dat file. Web browsers only provide partial privacy protection by allowing some temporary Internet files and cookies to be deleted, but they do not clean data out all the hidden files nor do they delete the data securely. Privacy Guardian simply and securely erases sensitive files from Windows, Microsoft Office, Netscape, Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer. Privacy Guardian is also designed to let you directly and permanently delete any file stored on your computer.

Before giving away a couple of older computers (well not that old really - they were top-of-the-line machines in 2000 - Pentium III/500MHz) to a women's shelter which was desperate to replace its ancient and cranky Pentium 166MX machines, we had to find a way to securely delete all of the data on the not-so-old hard drives (all of which had been replaced in early 2003). But we also wanted to give the machines away with the original Window 2000 licenses and CDs, leaving the current, updated Windows 2000 operating system installations intact. We just wanted to get rid of program files and confidential business and research data, before donating the machines. My IS/IT Manager looked at us like we were nuts.

"The only safe way to prepare these machines for donation is to reformat the drives and then overwrite them with random data — twice," is what he actually said. "You never know who might get their hands on the machines," he stated flatly.


"But the people running the women's shelter don't have the time or the skills or the IT staff to re-install Windows 2000," I replied. "Figure out a safe way to give these machines away without the possibility of accidentally leaving confidential data on the drives," I ordered. Two days later, the IS/IT Manager stuck his head in my office and said "I'm not doing this manually, so get a copy of Privacy Guardian for review and I'll solve your women's shelter computer problem." Okey-dokey. And thank you WinGuides for providing us with cool software to review and for helping us donate two perfectly good computers to a women's shelter in need. Everybody's happy now.

Now for a primer on how Windows stores information. First, using the Windows Recycle Bin to permanently delete files does not work. Any third-rate file recovery utility, not to mention top-notch products such as Executive Software's Undelete, can recover files deleted by Windows as long as there hasn't been too much data subsequently stored in the same location. Second, too many people forget the recycle bin even exists and that the default size of the thing is huge. If you really want to delete something in Windows, hold down the Shift key when you click delete and the file(s) or folder(s) you've selected will bypass the recycle bin. Third, deleting something in Windows doesn't do much beside changing the first letter of the file name to a null symbol and removing the file entry from the File Allocation Table stored on the hard drive or other storage media. Fourth, Windows, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, Outlook and a lot of productivity software store all sorts of history, file caches, cookies, file lists, logs, URLs, form data and other files and information in a number of locations which are never touched when you use Internet Explorer's history and cache deletion tools. To find all the locations yourself you basically have to fully analyze the Windows Registry and the design of each and every part of the operating system and browser and productivity program in order to ferret out all the hiding places. Fifth, Windows sometimes prevents you from deleting certain files.

There's a whole tech industry segment which has grown up over the past 20 years or so completely focused on recovering data from hard drives and other storage media, digging up data that's been accidentally deleted (or that we think has been deleted), digging up evidence in criminal and civil investigations, resurrecting incriminating (or just lost) files, e-mail, etc., etc. It's a profitable business fed by our insistence on not doing proper backups, the propensity of some criminals to leave digital traces, the absolute likelihood that hard drives and other storage media are guaranteed to fail when we least expect it, and the belief that just because we highlighted a file and clicked the Delete key the file is really gone. The dark side of this tech segment consists of the various murky groups of corporate espionage specialists quietly watching, among other activities, for certain companies to donate or sell surplus computers without properly cleaning them first. AH-HAH! We're smarter than that, aren't we!

Privacy Guardian can get into all the myriad hiding places embedded in Windows, thereby thoroughly and completely rooting out all traces of human activity. Whether you're using Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, Internet Explorer, Netscape or thousands of other programs, all of the files you create, use, download, access online (html/web pages, cookies, URLs, images, video, flash, scripts, shockwave files, etc., etc.) are tracked and stored and sometimes even automatically mirrored or backed up. Getting rid of all that stuff is a monumental task. Better to let some smart programmers do all the sleuthing and footwork and embed the results in a handy utility which does the work for you. Privacy Guardian is also designed to permanently delete files by removing all discernable traces of file contents before handing it off to Windows for common deletion.

WinGuides has taken an interesting approach to the basic design of Privacy Guardian in that the program defaults don't reflect total paranoia. For example, the default configuration is not set to Bleach free space. In this case, bleaching means overwriting free hard drive space with randomly generated data in order to remove any chance of recovering file data which might have been previously stored there. Turn bleaching on by selecting it from the privacy checklist in the configuration dialog. Bleaching files deleted by Privacy Guardian's Shredder feature is also not turned on by default. Privacy Guardian's free space and deleted file bleaching routines follow the U.S. Department of Defense standard (DoD 5220.22-M) making the files unrecoverable using regular methods. There may be some specialty file recovery companies which can still recover parts of files deleted and bleached by Privacy Guardian, but the cost for such recoveries - and they rarely recover complete files; usually only fragments of file contents - easily runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, using Privacy Guardian to delete and bleach files and free space on the computers we donated was an ideal solution.

Cons: No problems here. The software works exactly as advertised.

Pros: The file shredder apparently works by first overwriting selected files with random numbers and symbols and then deleting the files. We 'recovered' such files using Executive Software's Undelete and found that the file names were composed only of random letters and the file contents were also complete garbage - random numbers and symbols, no original file data of any kind. When Privacy Guardian cleans out Internet Explorer it really cleans it out - there's nothing left except your configuration settings and your Favorites. The utility works fast, detecting and eradicating about 7,000 files and data entries in one case (a typical count in most home and office computers) in just under 30 seconds. We like useful utilities which aren't pretentious and go about their assigned tasks in a swift and efficient manner. In this day and age of backdoors, worms, trojans and other sneak attacks, you never know who's watching. While the need for Privacy Guardian is partly a sign of the times, there's little doubt that almost everyone who uses a computer needs this kind of data cleaning from time to time. Highly recommended.




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