Web Browser Privacy Options and Extensions
In Google Chrome it’s called “Incognito Mode.” Firefox has dubbed it “Private Browsing.” Internet Explorer? “InPrivate Browsing.” This is the browser feature you can use to temporarily disable storage of your browsing history, text field inputs (such as usernames and passwords, not to mention searches), and cookies. These modes are great for keeping secrets from others using the same computer, but they won’t hide anything from the rest of the Web. What I'm offering will.
A browser extension, sometimes referred to as an “add-on” (I prefer the term “extension,” but it’s all the same thing), is a piece of software that increases the browser’s functionality. All of the extensions listed here are free, but with the exception of Ghostery, they would all gladly accept a donation! I am placing an emphasis on Firefox in this post and linking to extensions for that browser and also for Google Chrome when available.
Now, before I type anything else, let’s get one thing straight: there is no such thing as total privacy on the Web. There just isn’t—all you need to do is watch the news to know that. The only thing these browser extensions can do is hide some information from some people and organizations. Without using an anonymizing service such as Tor, which bounces your activity around before actually communicating with a server, what you do online is still very much visible to your Internet service provider, law enforcement agencies, and the government. If you ever do take it upon yourself to learn and use Tor, the fact that you are using it, though not what you’re using it for, is still visible. I’ll get to Tor in another blog post, however.
What these extensions mean to accomplish is to hide you from individuals, corporations, advertisers, and data brokers. They do not do a perfect job, and there are drawbacks to using them, as I will go over. Privacy in the networked age is not guaranteed, and you should not treat it as an all-or-nothing proposition but rather fight for every scrap of it you can get. No one on the Web is in the business of respecting your privacy when there’s money at stake.
Before I get to the extensions themselves, let me make three recommendations to improve your overall privacy expectations online. First, ditch your current browser and use Mozilla Firefox, if you don’t already. Firefox is the only truly open source mainstream browser designed by a non-profit foundation that answers only to itself and its users. It is more secure and not in the business of collecting information about you to sell to advertisers. It also has a huge selection of excellent extensions.
The second recommendation is to enable Firefox’s Do Not Track feature. DNT is a technology that instructs sites to not employ tracking technology against their visitors. However, DNT is not regulated. It is not legally required. DNT’s use by sites is entirely voluntary. Fortunately, an increasing number are respecting it, and every little bit helps to protect your privacy. Click here to learn more about Do Not Track and how to enable it in Firefox.
Finally, stop using Google altogether and start using DuckDuckGo.com. Google not only keeps track of where you go online and uses that information for advertising purposes, but it also tailors search results and other content—such as its news aggregator—based on that activity. This is referred to as “bubbling,” and I’ve actually already written about its dangers here. DuckDuckGo does none of these things. It respects your privacy. With its new interface and manner for delivering results, DuckDuckGo now rivals Google.
Now, on to the extensions.
HTTP, or HyperText Transfer Protocol, is the technology by which data is transmitted over the Web. HTTPS, or HTTP Secure, is a means of encrypting that data from its source to its destination so even if it is intercepted, it cannot be read by third parties. Many sites such as banks, online retailers, and your email providers have this technology, though not all of them employ it regularly. HTTPS Everywhere is an extension that forces those sites with HTTPS capability to use it whenever you’re connected to them.
When it comes to tracking us online, there’s more on sites than meets the eye. Seemingly benign elements such as social media buttons and advertisements track our movements online to a truly frightening degree. Ghostery is the most comprehensive and easiest-to-use add-on that blocks everything on a page that tried to track us.
There is a catch, however. Ghostery is owned by Evidon, itself an ad tracking company, and it makes money from Ghostery by selling information about what ads and other trackers you block back to the advertisers being affected. Fortunately, this is an opt-in feature called “Ghostrank” that Ghostery is very clear about when you first install it. Don’t opt-in, and you needn’t worry.
Still, this particular caveat is something that those of us who are especially privacy-conscious may not be comfortable with. If that’s the case, install the next-best add-on for this particular feature: Disconnect (Firefox download | Google Chrome download). The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has a new extension called Privacy Badger that is similar to Ghostery and Disconnect. I would tend to trust Privacy Badger more since it is a product of the EFF, a staunch advocate for our right to online privacy. However, it is still in public beta and its effectiveness is not yet proven, so I wouldn’t rely on it just yet.
Please note that Ghostery and similar extensions will break some sites’ functionality and layout. If that is the case, you do have the option to pause Ghostery by clicking its icon in the toolbar and clicking the Pause Blocking button. If you’re the paranoid type, as I am, you may learn to live with that.
Advertisements are one of the top ways in which we are tracked online. They’re also obnoxious, intrusive, frequently misleading to the point of accidentally infecting our computers with malware (don’t ever click an ad that tells you your computer needs to be “optimized”), and they can slow page load times way down. Adblock Plus is one of a few extensions that does its best to remove ads from sites so that none of the above pesters you, and it’s the best I’ve ever used. Adblock Plus has a few extra features to block trackers, but we’ll leave that to either Ghostery or Disconnect.me.
Keep in mind that most sites rely on advertisements to stay online, never mind make money. If a site’s advertisements are not too disruptive, you should be considerate and disable Adblock on that site. This can be done by clicking the red ABP icon in the toolbar and clicking the option that reads Enabled on this site to disable it. Unless instructed otherwise, Adblock will allow some of these non-intrusive ads through its filter.
Also note that many sites have advertisements so thoroughly integrated into their layouts that blocking them will actually break the pages you are trying to read. I have noticed this a lot on cnet.com, one of my favorite tech news sites. Additionally, many streaming videos start out with advertisements that Adblock Plus blocks as well. This will more often than not stop the main video from loading at all.
Self-Destructing Cookies (Firefox download only, not available for Chrome)
Not convinced that all the cookies that find their way onto your computer are being blocked or erased? Self-destructing cookies will delete cookies when they are no longer needed by the browser tab you are currently using. Specific cookies can be white-listed so that they never disappear, but the rest will go bye-bye.
NoScript Security Suite (Firefox download only, not available for Chrome)
These are what I consider to be the best privacy extensions, but there are quite a few more out there for both Firefox and for Chrome. Almost all extensions are free, so play around and see what you like. And if you find one you really like, consider donating towards its continued development. Developers for extensions like these do the work they do out of a sense of community and aren't generally in this for the money, but they won't turn it away.