Dirty pictures don't interest you, of course. Those erotic images in your browser cache? Must've mistyped some URLs. But perhaps you know friends who enjoy Internet eye candy. Like you, your buddies value privacy. They would be mortified if anyone—spouse, boss, PC-repair guy, constituent, parishioner—discovered what racy turf they have surfed. So, as an act of kindness, please pass along the following tips. Here's how to ogle online without leaving a trace.
1. Block the flow of info. When your browser visits an X-rated emporium or, for that matter, the Securities and Exchange Commission site (the surfing equivalent of "thinking about baseball"), it generally reveals your name, Internet Protocol address, and other sites you've visited. Shield yourself with cloaking software. Anonymizer, Freedom WebSecure, and The Cloak are three solid options. They range in price from free to $59.95 a year, depending on features and speed, and act as intermediaries between your PC and the Web sites you visit. They strip personal information from your page requests and prevent cookies, Web bugs, and other nosy code from hitting your hard drive.
2. Give your inner perv a different name. Visit a hip hop or Hobbit name generator for suggestions. From now on, Posco Toadfoot of Frogmorton will surf for salaciousness on your behalf. Use his name—and address, age, and thoughts on the Mirror of Galadriel—whenever a Web site requests personal information. Next, install a new browser that only Posco will use. That way, guests using your computer won't open Posco's bookmarks or surf through his history of visited Web sites.
3. Pay discreetly. Eyers of top-shelf filth must pay for the privilege. And there's the rub. How can you conduct anonymous financial transactions when sunglasses and a trench coat won't suffice? Two solutions: One, admit defeat and divulge your credit card stats with a reputable site. "We never, never sell or share personal information with anyone," promises Danni Ashe, proprietress and star attraction of Danni's Hard Drive, one of the Web's most popular adult sites. "Privacy is important to our users." Hey, you've got to trust an adult-entertainment company that plays NPR to on-hold callers.
Two, check out Yourbrain Media's brand-new Adult XXX Card, coming soon to a convenience store near you. As with phone cards, consumers can purchase XXX Cards with good ol' anonymous cash and use the access code printed thereon to browse booty through the company's portal. "This way," Yourbrain Media President Brad Gosse says, "your wife won't ask, 'What's this $20 charge on our credit card statement?' " Twenty dollars provides 30 days of prepaid voyeurism. And one day you might be able to use an XXX Card at less lascivious e-commerce sites. As Wired put it last month, if the idea "catches on with porn purveyors, expect legit businesses to indulge their own naked ambitions."
4. Give your computer a shower. By now, your hard drive resembles a 15-year-old boy's mental bulletin board. Go ahead and clear your cache and recycling bin. (To clear your cache of temporarily stored Web sites in Internet Explorer, choose Tools and then Internet Options. Under "Temporary Internet Files," click "Delete Files." In Netscape, choose Edit, then Preferences. In the "Advanced" category, choose "Cache," then click "Clear Memory Cache" and "Clear Disk Cache.") But drag-and-click cleansing is cursory at best, akin to swabbing a fishmonger's counter with a dry paper towel. The chunks are gone, but closer inspection reveals swarms of bacteria. Employ a high-tech disinfectant such as Internet Washer, SecureClean, or Window Washer. At $29.95, Window Washer is the most economical, and, according to its maker, it permanently "bleaches" your Net tracks, everything from cookies to media files of Crisco-coated gymnasts playing Twister.
Practicing safe surfing provides benefits beyond saved bandwidth and marriages. If you can thwart the data collection efforts of pornographers, you're probably a step ahead of hackers, viruses, and aggressive e-marketers. And to be fair, privacy programs such as the Anonymizer and Window Washer are intended for higher-minded purposes than scrubbing faux nude photos of Anna Kournikova off your hard drive. "Even people who would never deliberately go to a porn site can accidentally rack up visits to these sites," says spam-fighter Jason Catlett, president of JunkBusters.org. "It can seem you're a porn consumer when in fact that's not the case." Yeah, right.