Making Your Browser Safer

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Like most computer users, a large majority of my time is spent inside a web browser. While I am frequently asked which one is best, that’s mostly personal preference. You may use the one that came installed by default on your computer. You may use the one you first used when you got a computer. What I can tell you, though, is how to make whatever browser you use as safe as possible.

All major web browsers (Chrome, Safari, Edge and Firefox) have a multitude of settings, safety/privacy-related and otherwise. 

The first thing is your search engine, probably set to Google or Bing. What you want is an engine that doesn’t track your activity (as much) and is less-populated with ads. I recommend DuckDuckGo. Go into your browser’s settings/preferences/options, and look for Search settings. It is usually a pull-down menu, so select DuckDuckGo. If you can’t find the setting for this (or other settings), use the Search text entry bar which most browsers (not Safari) feature at the top of the list of settings.

Now let’s look at Chrome specifically. The first setting to change here is to ‘Block third-party cookies.’ I’ll skip the explanation of why this is a good thing. Go to Settings, then select ‘Cookies and other site data’. From there, select ‘Block third-party cookies.’

Next, clearing your browsing data (the data that gets sent to Google and its partners) is also a good idea. First (again in Settings), go to ‘Privacy and security’, then ‘Clear browsing data’. In the Basic tab, select a Time range, and then click ‘Clear Data’. A default setting to also change is ‘Help improve security on the web for everyone.’ In ‘Privacy and security’ > Safe Browsing, select Standard protection and then turn off ‘Help improve security on the web for everyone’. While this sounds noble, it really means sending your site-visit history to Google for their marketing efforts.

The techno-speak for these settings in Safari is a little different. Here, in Preferences, click the Privacy tab. The box beside ‘Prevent cross-site tracking’ should be checked. In that same tab, click Manage Website Data to see which sites have left their trackers and cookies on your computer. You can remove each site’s data individually, or click Remove All to nuke them all. 

Extensions (small browser add-ons) also help with privacy. First you want to check what extensions you may already have installed. In most browsers, that’s a separate menu selection from Settings/Preferences/Options. You should first remove any extensions you don’t recognize, as these may have been added by a website you visited. Then search for extensions to do with privacy, usually by going to an on-line listing. Ones I have used and recommend are Cookie Autodelete (saves you having to do it manually), uBlock Origin (ad blocking), Privacy Badger (variety of tools) and HTTPS Everywhere (ensures your session is encrypted). All are free.

Should you sign in to use a browser? There are advantages to doing so—syncing your passwords and bookmarks across your phone, tablet and computer, for example. However, signing in also allows your browser to better track your web behavior and site visits, so it’s a trade-off. If you clean out your data, as shown above, the advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages. 

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