The application we know as the web browser was born in 1993 at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois. Known as Mosaic, it allowed normal mortals to browse the World-Wide Web. Revolutionary for its time, one thing it wasn’t concerned with was security.
It didn’t take long for business to discover the web. Websites where you could buy something (say, books) proliferated in the mid-90s. Then people started to realize there needed to be a way to secure the sensitive financial information going over the internet. The first innovation was encrypting the letters and numbers entered by users. Using technology borrowed from military codes, the concept of a secure browser session was born. When you go to a web site, look in the URL window at the top. You should see “https” or a lock icon. This tells you the information you are sending or receiving is encoded. If you click on the lock icon, it should give you more details about the encryption type. These days, almost all web sites use https, whether they transmit sensitive data or not.
Even with encrypted connections, web browsers can still track your online movements. In the worst case, a malicious web site can drop malware on your computer without your knowledge. Modern web browsers now have built-in mechanisms to keep these “trackers” from following you. Most of these are on by default.
The ads cluttering up most websites serve a dual purpose–to get you buy things, and to track you as you click on them. Get one of the many ad-blocker add-ons for your browser (search for adblock and the name of your browser). Installing it should cut down on this level of privacy intrusion.
Another way to safeguard your privacy on the web is to use an alternative search engine. Most web browsers are set up to use Google or Bing. Then those results of your searches are used to target the ads you see while browsing. They also have “sponsored” search results, where companies pay to have their sites listed before other non-sponsored sites. An alternative search engine called DuckDuckGo still gives you the same number of hits, but without the ads and hidden tracking.
Notifications are a new feature in some browsers like Google Chrome. Websites can make pop-ups appear on your computer’s desktop to get you to visit them, or advertise sales, etc. Technically, you have to opt-in to such notifications, but you may inadvertently click Yes while not realizing what you’re agreeing to. Go to Preferences/Settings in Chrome and search for ‘notifications,’ then turn off “Sites can ask to send notifications.”
Lastly, most modern web browsers allow software developers to add extensions – small apps that “help” your browser do its job. Many of these are helpful, showing you which of the books you are searching for at Amazon are available at the library, for example. Others, though, may be malicious—hijacking your search queries, or logging your user id and password keystrokes. Check the list of add-ons in your browser—it’s usually in Settings or may be a separate menu item. If you don’t recognize what’s listed, delete them.
Your web browser is probably the single-most-used app on your computer, phone and tablet. Some time spent keeping it private may save you some headaches later.