How To Protect Your Online Privacy 2017 – Desktop Web Browsers

Nick Congleton Informative Internet Guides

Think about how you use your computer. Most of the time, you have your web browser open, right? Web browsers are among the most commonly used applications across all devices. So, choosing the right one one is important.

Browsers go deep.

Desktop web browsers are more than they appear to be. Browsers are massive programs written by huge teams of developers. In a way, they’re like a second operating system running on your computer.

Web browsers need to be able to read and execute code. It’s a critical part of how the Internet works. Browsers request information from a server. The server sends back HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It’s up to the browser to interpret all three of those to display a page, including anything interactive.

Modern sites continue to get more interactive. Web applications and major websites send and receive large amounts of user information. They also include loads of JavaScript to handle any number of things, not the least of which is animation.

But, isn’t that a good thing?

All of that interactivity and the ability to run code opens up a world of possible threats. JavaScript can let attackers run pretty much anything they want through your browser. Those attackers don’t necessarily have to be criminal hackers. They could be invasive advertisers too.

The Gateway To The Internet

How do you get to the Internet? Through your browser. Almost everything that you do online goes through your web browser. It sees everything you type, everywhere you click, and every site that you go to. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your browser is secure.

Even if you go through every other step to keep yourself safe, your browser can give you away. VPNs, Tor, and proxies can’t do anything about your browser being insecure. They can’t stop it from giving up personal information if there is an open attack vector.

Your browser is the first line of defense.

Your Browser Doesn’t Work For You

It’s important to consider who your browser serves. What does a free browser cost? If a for-profit corporation releases a browser for free, why did they make it?

Browsers aren’t easy to make or maintain. They require a significant investment of both time and resources. Those companies aren’t making them for your benefit. They’re getting something out of it, and that something is usually your data.

Chrome… Phone… Home…

Google Chrome may be the top browser right now, but it also may be the biggest data thief of them all. Chrome not only routinely sends data to Google. It records your voice long after you use its voice search.

Chromium isn’t much better. Even though it is open source, it still sends data to Google.

If you trust Internet Explorer, get off the Internet.

Microsoft Edge and Apple Safari are not good options either. They are both closed source and are owned by entities with questionable motives. The chances of either or both of them recording data for their corporate overlords are very high.

Firefox: The Best Option

There is no perfect browser, but right now, Mozilla Firefox is easily the best choice. Firefox is open source and is developed by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. It has a strong track record of improving security. Firefox also has a history of including valuable privacy features before anyone else.

Firefox is super configurable and can be set up to work with proxies, Tor, and VPNs with add-ons. Additionally, it has its own privacy and security settings. Firefox features its “Do Not Track” settings that request sites do not follow you.

But wait, there’s more!

Firefox has a huge add-on repository. It includes a broad range of security and privacy add-ons. May of them improve Firefox’s existing capabilities.

If you need more evidence of Firefox’s privacy chops keep in mind, Firefox was chosen as the basis for the Tor Browser Bundle and wasn’t altered much by the Tor team. In fact, Mozilla actively works with the Tor Project to improve both pieces of software.

Put Some Armor On Your Fox

Firefox is good by default, but you can make it even better with a few simple tweaks. Everything that you need can be found under the “Preferences” section of the Firefox menu.

Go ahead and click on the menu button in Firefox. It’s the one the three stacked lines all the way to the right. Click on “Options” in the menu when it opens.

A Search That Isn’t Searching You…

Start off in the “Search” section. By default, Firefox uses Yahoo! As its default search engine. Yahoo!, like Google and many others, keeps logs and collects search data. Plus realistically its kinda weak.

Firefox does include a much better alternative, DuckDuckGo. A later section will discuss DuckDuckGo and other search options more. But, there are a couple of key points to touch on here.

Don’t be the goose.

DuckDuckGo does not track you or log user data. It’s earned its place as the top search engine for people looking for a more respectful option. Over the past few years, DuckDuckGo’s search algorithm has improved significantly. As of now, its results are among the most accurate.

DuckDuckGo has a feature that allows you to direct searches through other search engines. This way, if you happen not to get the results that you were looking for, you can redirect your search to another search engine quickly.

Set Firefox’s default search function to DuckDuckGo for more private searches.

Tracker, No Tracking

Next, head over to the “Privacy” section. Obviously, there are a few options here. The first one is enabling Do Not Track.

The first section is titled “Tracking.” That’s where you’ll find the Do Not Track settings. By default, you’ll see an option for tracking protection in private windows. Be sure that it’s checked.

Below that, there is another option with a link to manage your Do Not Track settings. Click that link, and check off the box to enable Do Not Track on the window that opens.

A History of Cookies

Sorry, no baked goods here.

The next section is the “History” section. The first thing that you will see is “Firefox will:” with a drop down menu. That menu will allow you to select how Firefox handles history and cookies. Select “Use custom settings for history.” It will open some more options.

Those options allow you manage cookies and browsing history. Which options you check off are up to you.

Burn the evidence.

The less information that you allow Firefox to save, the better. Keep in mind that can also lead to a major inconvenience. Pick your balance.

Kill The Reports

Go to the “Advanced” section and click on the “Data Choices” tab. Uncheck all the boxes. There is no reason to enable the health reports or the crash reports.

There isn’t necessarily any evidence that those reports are sending any personal data. They also don’t do anything for you. Minimize the data your browser sends.

Tear Off The Pocket

Pocket is a closed source service that’s been integrated into Firefox for quite some time now. There isn’t any evidence that having Pocket enabled does anything, but if you want to be sure, you can disable it.

In the address bar, type in “about:config.” Firefox will warn you that you can mess things up. Click “I accept…” On the resulting page, type “Pocket” into the search.

You will get several results for your search. The main one that you need to disable Pocket is, “extensions.pocket.enabled.” Click on it to switch its value to “false.” When you restart Firefox, Pocket will be disabled.

Take a hammer to it. No one cares.

If you really want to mess up Pocket, fill the other “extensions.pocket” values with garbage. Again, this shouldn’t do anything, but it also ensures that the values that Pocket has to work with are junk.

Other Browser Options

If you don’t like Firefox or want to try something different, there are a few of other browsers that you can consider.

Brave

Brave is innovative. It takes an entirely different approach to online advertising. At the same time, it protects you from many external threats automatically.

It’s a Brave new solution. Get it?

By default, brave blocks ads, and trackers. Then, it gives you a choice of how it will behave. You can leave things as they are, with the ads disabled. As an alternative, you can choose to see Brave’s approved “safe” ads and possibly share in its ad revenue.

Brave also defaults to encrypted HTTPS traffic, for an added benefit.

It’s important to note that Brave is free and open source software. It is subject to peer review to prevent anything shady with the ads.

Icecat

Icecat is Firefox, sort of. The Free Software Foundation maintains it’s own branch of Firefox called Icecat.

The Free Software Foundation strips anything proprietary out of Icecat for its release. That includes all Firefox branding.

Freeze out, snoopers.

GNU Icecat also includes a couple of useful add-ons. It comes with an ad blocker and HTTPS Everywhere to ensure that its traffic is encrypted by default. Icecat also has an interesting JavaScript add-on that blocks all closed source JavaScript. It improves security, but it also breaks a lot of sites.

The Free Software Foundation removed the Firefox add-on repository. Instead, Icecat has a free software only add-on repository. There are several significant privacy and security add-ons for Icecat. You can install any Firefox add-ons in Icecat, but you have to get them manually.

Pale Moon

Pale Moon is yet another relative of Firefox; only its relation is a bit more distant. The Pale Moon developers forked it from Firefox some time ago. They have developed it independently since.

With that said, the Pale Moon developers have worked to keep their browser as close to compatible with Firefox as possible.

The aim of Pale Moon is to continue to produce a stable and well-performing browser that allows user freedom. The Project operates under the philosophy that you should be able to user your web browser how you want.

There is a library of Pale Moon add-ons that features many popular add-ons from Firefox. There aren’t nearly as many add-ons as more popular browsers have, but there are options. You can also use some Firefox add-ons on Pale Moon. Their compatibility should be considered volatile since they aren’t tested for Pale Moon.

Tor Browser

You’ve already seen the Tor browser in the previous section that dealt with Tor. It’s worth mentioning here too.

The Tor Browser is a modified version of Firefox. It follows the Firefox development cycle. The Tor project modified the Tor Browser to be preconfigured to work with Tor by default. It also has some nice additions that make managing security and working with Tor a little easier.

The Tor Browser comes with the NoScript and HTTPS Everywhere add-ons installed. Both add-ons help to enhance the protections that Tor already provides.

Since the Tor Browser is Firefox, you can install any Firefox add-on on it. Be careful not to introduce anything that might compromise your identity. That defeats the purpose.

Add-ons

Add-ons can be either helpful or harmful. Ones that rely on external services or social media are probably not trustworthy. Meanwhile, there are plenty of great add-ons that bolster your browser’s security and your privacy.

Beware closed source add-ons that work with external sites. Your add-ons can compromise your browser. They can even increase the amount of data that is being collected about you.

It’s also important to watch out for add-ons that aren’t actively maintained or seem shady. Security holes and bugs in your add-ons can be even more dangerous than anything else.

Some add-ons make your browser much better.

With all the doom and gloom out of the way, there are some great add-ons out there. There is a “Privacy and Security” section of the Firefox add-on repository. Many of the add-ons there are great.

The add-ons included here are the best of the best. They are all free and open source add-ons that have a proven track record. They’re known for protecting user privacy and being actively maintained by prominent developers.

All of these add-ons are available for Firefox, but they may be available for other browsers too. You can use all of them or a few of them. There is some overlap in their functionality.

HTTPS Everywhere

HTTPS Everywhere is developed and maintained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation(EFF).  It attempts to encrypt all traffic using the HTTPS protocol.

Encrypt all the things!

The HTTPS protocol uses TLS/SSL to encrypt your browser’s requests to and from web servers further securing your data from would-be eavesdroppers.

HTTPS encryption also helps ensure that online forms are secure. It makes certain data within them cannot be viewed by anyone looking at the request. Without HTTPS it’s very easy to steal personal information and login details.

Privacy Badger

Privacy Badger is another add-on developed by the EFF. This one fights to block trackers and enforce Firefox’s Do Not Track.

Privacy Badger blocks tracking cookies, third party trackers and invisible trackers embedded in web pages.

Privacy Badger comes equipped with a database of known trackers to block immediately. Besides that, it detects and blocks them in real-time.

uBlock Origin

uBlock Origin is probably the best ad blocker available today. That’s because it’s more than just an ad blocker. The developer refers to it as a “wide-spectrum blocker” because it handles trackers and malware too.

uBlock Origin uses many well-known filter lists to block trackers, ads, and malware. uBlock is very granular; you can pick and choose which lists you want it to use. uBlock can be switched to “advanced” where you can set it to Default-Deny mode. In the default-deny mode, all third party network requests are blocked by default until you explicitly allow it.

uMatrix

uMatrix is a different type of blocker. It allows you to visualize the requests coming to and from your browser and block unwanted ones.

uMatrix uses a color coding system to categorize requests. The add-on gets its name from the grid layout it uses to allow you to see the data in an easy to understand format.

Through uMatrix, you can also allow and block parts of a site on the fly. If something is broken by default, you can allow it. If uMatrix missed something, block it.

NoScript

NoScript is one of the oldest and most respected security add-ons for Firefox. It blocks all JavaScript, Java, and Flash by default. You can then control what you allow to run on a case-by-case basis.

None shall pass!

NoScript can be a huge pain. It will break just about every website that you visit by default. If you have the patience to use it right, it works. Edward Snowden even recommended it.

Random Agent Spoofer

Web sites have a completely different way of identifying and tracking you, browser fingerprinting. Every browser has unique identifiers that differentiate it. Browsers send many of them along with requests. Analytics can follow these browser fingerprints around websites, and third parties can then share this “fingerprint” data and map your activity.

Random Agent Spoofer works against browser fingerprinting by spoofing data about your browser. It can make the browser appear to be something different. It can also shift periodically or on your command to become something else in the middle of browsing.

Another proven strategy is to spoof a very common configuration. It’s much harder to identify.

Self-Destructing Cookies

This message will self-destruct in fifteen seconds…

Okay, maybe not, but that’s how Self-Destructing Cookies works. This add-on automatically deletes your browser’s cookies when you leave a website.

You can reap the benefits of cookies while you’re on a site, and browse without things breaking. At the same time, once you leave a site, you know that you’re not being followed.

Decentraleyes

Decentraleyes bypasses large centralized content delivery networks(CDN). It emulates them and serves content locally.

CDNs can track you, especially third party ones owned by companies like Google. Remember, they make their fortunes by following you on the web. Decentraleyes cuts out their opportunity to do so.

Decentraleyes can speed up your connection by eliminating additional requests.

Making Sure Your Ass Is Covered

It’s good to set your browser up, install your add-ons, and feel like you’re being protected. It’s much better to test it all out and make sure that you are.

Nothing is perfect, but there are a couple of tests that you can run to see how well your setup is performing in real world situations.

Panopticlick

Panopticlick is a tool developed and run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It automatically scans your browser to find information about it.

It can analyze and compare that information to determine how unique your browser configuration is. The more unique your configuration, the more identifiable you are.

Panopticlick also provides some suggestions for better browser configurations to avoid browser fingerprinting.

BrowserLeaks

Browserleaks.com is a massive multi-tool that can test multiple vulnerabilities in your browser.

Excuse me, but your browser is leaking…

You can test all of the main ways that your browser can betray your privacy. It covers newer leaking methods like WebGL, HTML5 Canvas, and Geolocation in addition to the more “classic” ones.

Browserleaks can test your browser and show you exactly where your problems are. The web application provides detailed reports on the tests it runs. So, you can see what it sees and what other sites see too.

Decentraleyes

Unlike the others, this is just a single purpose test. Decentraleyes provides a testing ground to ensure that the plugin is working correctly. Visit the site, and you can test out the add-on.

Tor

This is another specific test. The Tor Project provides a testing site that you can use to ensure that you’re using Tor. It will search for your IP address and will detect the Tor Browser. If you aren’t using it but are on Tor, the site will warn you. Then again, if you configured Tor on your own, you probably know what you’re doing anyway.

Did you miss parts of our epic How To Protect Your Online Privacy in 2017 guide? Click the links below to read the other sections

The Introduction – VPN and Tor – Desktop Web Browsers and Add-ons