When it works too well

Keystrokes: Auto Complete can sometimes record personal data best left private.

April 02, 2001|By James Coates | James Coates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

I hit a nerve recently when I tackled a deceptively simple-sounding question from a reader who couldn't quite get the hang of the Auto Complete feature built into the Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser.

Judging from the e-mail that poured in, a great many people are perplexed or paranoid about the Microsoft Web browser software that the vast majority of Americans use to call up Internet sites.

The idea is that as users type the first few letters of a word or phrase, the computer recognizes what the user wants based on past typing and automatically completes whatever the user has in mind.

To sum up the firestorm over this long-standing feature, there are three big issues:

First, it is terribly unintuitive. Second, it remembers mistakes with the same relentless zeal as it remembers correct input, and finally, it makes no distinction between automatically filling in innocuous stuff and automatically filling in terribly personal stuff.

For example, the feature learns not only your name, address and e-mail, but also things like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers (complete with expiration dates) and most of the other things that people need to type in while shopping online or visiting password-protected Web sites.

Propeller-head that I am, I thought the biggest issue was the way Microsoft chose to implement Auto Complete, which was the subject of the original question.

With its default settings in place, the browser completes each word or phrase in a box that appears below the one where a user types. But there is no obvious way for one to make the suggested phrase appear in the box where the typing began.

The trick is to hit the cursor down-arrow as soon as the correct Auto Complete phrase pops up and then, once that phrase is defined, tap the Enter key, which will enter the correct phrase.

But it turns out that this example of Auto Complete's poor keyboard implementation just scratches the surface.

George Nelson of Downers Grove, Ill., was among many correspondents who complained that Auto Complete kicks in and remembers every incorrect response, as well as every correct one.

When you mess up the first effort and then type in the phrase correctly, the Auto Complete box persists in listing the wrong answer first and the correct answer below it. This means that one must tap the cursor down key twice or more to reach the correct answer and then hit the Enter key. Bummer, as we used to say back in the days of Johnson administration.

Nelson asked, "Is there a way to delete/amend the fillers?"

Right below his letter was the answer in a note from Eric Blomstrom, a computer manager for Tribune Co. (the parent company of The Sun), who had sought professional advice to fix this.

"Here is his answer," he wrote. "In the [Internet Explorer] menu bar, go to Tools, Internet Options, Content tab, Personal Information Area, Auto Complete. Here you can configure and edit your auto-complete usage."

Thank you, Mr. B. However, I fear that we have opened another can of worms. What about all the people who say it makes their skin crawl to realize that the software is memorizing their credit card numbers, Social Security data and other stuff that can get one into serious trouble?

One reader, who quite appropriately asked not to be named, vented: "Gadzooks, I have an unlisted telephone number, and I won't even give them my ZIP code when I buy stuff at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and now I find out that everything I type into confidential forms is being `remembered' by the (blinking) computer."

And so the advice from my colleague here at the online interactive multimedia sweatshop is quite useful. If you follow his steps, you will find a series of boxes that let you shut down this nasty remembering feature totally. Those commands allow users to wipe the slate clean of all prior "remembered" tidbits.

The more I think about it, the more I share that sense of paranoia about letting software that nobody really understands all that well "remember" our most private data for the purpose of sending it somewhere automatically.

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