Following my class at Solo Practice University on the changes to Google’s privacy policies and terms of service, I have found myself in a lot of conversations about web privacy generally. It pays to spend some time thinking about actions and consequences on the Web. So I thought I would discuss some tips here about staying as safe as possible in the virtual wilds of the World Wide Web.
First, consider your browser. The big three: Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. Oh, and Safari too.
IE has a “smartscreen filter” and several security settings enabled by default. It can identify impostor web sites designed to capture sensitive data. When loading files, it will flash high warnings for risky files, but allow loading of reputable or well known files. It will also alert you of potential harm before permitting software to enter your computer. Simply click on the “Safety “button in the Internet explorer, then “SmartScreen filter” and select it.
Firefox has its Favicon in the URL bar – hover and it will give an overview of whether a site is safe or not. Click it and you will get more information such as whether passwords are saved and number of visits. Firefox also warns against Trojans and other malware. Firefox maintains a list of phony phishing sites that are updated daily. It integrates with your antivirus software. To get into your Firefox settings, click on “Tools”, then “Options,” then “Security”.
Macs are often considered to be “safe” from such unwanted intrusions. But there have been instances of Mac-borne viruses, so it is worth getting familiar with your Safari security settings. Unclick the “open safe files after downloading” box in the General settings. Go into “Preferences” then “Security” and check the “Warn when visiting a fraudulent website” checkbox Safari will then advise when you are about to visit a website that has been reported as fraudulent or distributes malware.
On any browser, look for the “lock” icon and “https” in the URL bar. This connotes that the site is secure and is using encryption to protect your information.
Another concept that comes up frequently in web browsing is anonymous browsing through the use of proxy servers. Anonymous web browsing is browsing the Web without revealing your IP address or any other personally identifiable information to the websites that you are visiting. A proxy server is a server that serves as the “middleman” between your local request for action and the response from a server somewhere else. The request can be for a file, a connection, a web page or some other Web resource residing on another server. Many people use anonymous proxy servers to mask their identity while browsing. While there certainly nefarious reasons for doing so, it is a technique that can also be used to protect your privacy and disconnect you from search history. VPN (“virtual private network”) servers also allow anonymous browsing, and are often used within the enterprise to protect against infiltration by unwanted intruders or protect against the dissemination of sensitive information.
Worried about tracking cookies? There are ways to deal with those right within your browser. In IE, go to Control Panel, Internet Options, Privacy, and either choose the slider preset that blocks third-party cookies, or go into Advanced, Override automatic cookie handling, and then check Block under ‘Third-party cookies’. In Safari, go to Edit, Preferences, Privacy, and set ‘Block cookies’ to “From third parties and advertisers.” In Firefox, click on Options, Privacy, select “Use Custom Settings for History” from the drop-down menu and uncheck “Accept third-party cookies.” In Chrome, head to Options, then “Under the Hood,” then “Content Settings” in which you will check “Block third-party cookies From Being Set.” You also can deal with these within Google’s Ad Preference manager here or on a grander scale via the Opt Out From Online Behavior tool here.
Finally, there are tools to help you boost your security level on the Web. While the browsers all have some form of “incognito” mode, Cocoon is an extension for Firefox and IE, as well as mobile version, that blocks both cookies and IP addresses by routing your page requests through their servers. It has built in virus scanning tools and provides a disposable email address creator, keeping the spam out of your mail email inbox, as well as a handy “notes” feature – jot down notes on any web page and view them from your history. Very nice.
To access your browser’s incognito mode, do the following. In IE 9, InPrivate Browsing can be found with a Ctrl-Shift-P, Chrome’s Incognito Mode can be accessed with a Ctrl-Shift-N, Firefox’s Private Browsing mode is set with Ctrl-Shift-P, and Safari can too, with Private Browsing selectable from the Edit menu.
Maybe you don’t like so much social in your browsing, consider Antisocial for Chrome and ShareMeNot for Firefox. These will interfere with sharing buttons across the Web, such as Facebook’s “Like” and Google’s “+1″. Whether by preventing them from loading or by keeping them from reporting back to the social juggernaut whence they spawn, these extensions prevent tracking and keep your browsing and your social separate. Of course, you can log out of your social networks when you are done with them to keep sharing activity to a minimum as well.
Finally, although it doesn’t work on every site, HTTPS Everywhere will help enable HTTPS on sites that allow for it. When the site is HTTPS enabled, this extension will activate the HTTPS connection to encrypt your communication with those websites. Available in Firefox and Chrome flavors. Brought to you by the fine folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Use as many or as few of these tips to meet your comfort level on the Web. Remember to read privacy policies and terms of service on any of the sites on which you may want to spend time. Make sure you maintain control over your own information and web experience. Because if you don’t, who will?