Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Safer Browsing

Choosing a Browser | Settings | Use HTTPS | Your Browser Tracked

Making your Web browsing safer.

Your Choice of Browser Matters

Your choice of browser affects not only what tools are available to you or how convenient the browser is, but also how much information you share in the process.

First and foremost, the browser is one tool everyone uses. No matter your platform, you depend on a web browser. I would go so far as to say 90% of the work and entertainment you undertake on any computing device connected to the Internet is via a web browser. That means those ubiquitous applications have to pull a tremendous load. — TechRepublic

Each browser has strengths and weaknesses which can change over time.

Whichever browser you choose, the most recent version will usually have improved security features and/or have known security issues patched.

Firefox | Chrome | Edge | Safari

While most browsers come in both 32- and 64-bit versions, the 64-bit versions are generally faster and more secure.

Consider Security and Privacy

When making your choice, consider how well each browser handles privacy and security.

The Internet only stays healthy if we trust it as a safe place — to explore, transact, connect, and create. Our privacy and security online is under constant threat. But there's something you can do about it: get informed, protect yourself, and make your voice heard. A healthy Internet depends on you. — Mozilla

To be “secure,” a modern browser must meet certain requirements.

If a website won't load properly except in Internet Explorer or Google Chrome, you're probably better off going elsewhere for your information.

Check Privacy Settings

Check your browser's privacy settings. Choose your addons carefully as well as any other third-party aspects your browser uses.

Check Your Browser's Search Engine Settings

Choose your search engine carefully rather than accepting your browser's default setting. A search engine can leave behind a history that can last for years.

I recommend either StartPage or DuckDuckGo to preserve your privacy.

Clear Private Data

I recommend that you regularly clear your privacy data (cookies, saved form information, cache and authenticated sessions).

Perform this clearing before and after visiting sites like online banking and other similar sites where your logon or site contents are particularly confidential.

Private Windows or Incognito Mode Not Secure

Modern browsers have a mode that doesn't retain site history.

  • Firefox and Microsoft Edge call this a private window.
  • Google Chrome calls it incognito mode.

These are intended for hiding your history from others that use your computer such as when searching for gifts and similar activities. It does NOT protect your privacy online.

It is a myth that you can't be tracked while using so-called "Incognito mode." In fact, Incognito mode mainly just deletes information on your computer and does nothing to stop Google from saving your searches, nor does it stop companies, Internet service providers, or governments from being able to track you across the Internet. — DuckDuckGo

Bookmarking Hints

Your bookmarks (favorites in Microsoft Edge or Internet Explorer) can quickly become disorganized. Using a search mechanism helps, but it is probably better to use a series of folders and subfolders to manage similar content.

  • Use a “Current” folder to manage new bookmarks, moving them to a permanent sorted location when you realize that you want to keep them.
  • Use general titles for the main folders, adding more specific subfolders to group similar bookmarks.
  • Backup your bookmarks frequently. In Firefox, go to Manage Bookmarks then Import/Export when the Library window appears.

Reviewing your bookmarks from time-to-time can help to eliminate bookmarks you no longer need or those that no longer point to the resource you bookmarked.

Tracking in Web Links

When bookmarking or forwarding links, be sure to check for and remove special tracking codes that are generally included at the end of the web address (URL) when found in email or social media links:

  • Links with ?utm_source= usually include the site referring the link.
  • The ?ftag= includes tags that track an email campaign or similar criteria.
  • The ?sh= is a form used by Forbes.com to track linksn (e.g. /?sh=1b6b5fc8e0c7).

This example Twitter link contains two tracking mechanisms:

  • https://www.zdnet.com/article/should-kaseya-pay-revil-ransom-experts-are-torn/?ftag=COS-05-10aaa0g&taid=60e6043dfdc7d30001f57c13&utm_campaign=trueAnthem%3A+Trending+Content&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=twitter

Forbes.com uses ?sh= after the last backslash (e.g.?sh=1b6b5fc8e0c7). Be sure to check that the link works without the tracking code before bookmarking or forwarding the link.

Firefox

Firefox is my recommended browser for privacy and performance.

Not only is it more secure, but Mozilla is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting privacy and has no ties to an operating system or search engine company.

Firefox products have never — and never will never — buy or sell user data. — IRL Podcast

Built-in Privacy Features

Firefox has built-in privacy and security features that are designed to keep you safe, but are flexible enough that you get to choose your settings.

Privacy Settings

Firefox's privacy settings are located Privacy tab (Options ⇒ Privacy & Security). Be sure to review all the settings as you go. Firefox privacy notice.

When you come to History I recommend checking Clear history when Firefox closes. You can choose which items get removed by clicking the Settings button located to the right:

Clear Private Date dialogue box

In order to preserve any visited sites, bookmark them when you realize that you may want to come back to them later.

Private Browsing Mode

Firefox's Private Browsing mode allows you to surf without saving information about the sites and pages you've visited. Neither cookies nor passwords are saved.

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Google Chrome

If you're like most people, you're probably using Google Chrome as your default browser. It's hard to fault Google's record on security and patching but privacy is another matter for the online ad giant. — ZDNet

Google Chrome is now the dominant browser (only Firefox and Safari are not based upon Chromium).

If I had to take a guess, I'd say Google is just lucky the average user either doesn't like change or doesn't even realize there are alternative browsers available. If you happen to fall into that category, I highly suggest you install Firefox and see if you don't find yourself setting it as the default browser on all of your devices and platforms. — TechRepublic

Convenient but Lacks Privacy

Chrome collects your surfing data and there are significant privacy concerns.

A Global Monopoly

Google's monopoly goes far beyond their browser's dominance.

It now threatens the future of the open Web and the digital economy.

We created the monster that Google Chrome has become. Only we can destroy it. — ZDNet

Google now controls a significant majority of both Web searches AND browser installations, giving Google a monopoly on access to content on the Web.

Google purchased existing companies with expertise in areas they traditionally didn't have, then combined the users' data from all their companies to create powerful search and advertising profiles.

Google Never Forgets

Google makes their money by exploiting the information you provide both intentionally and unintentionally.

Google NEVER forgets.

Don't Sign-in To Google

While you have access to your bookmarks and history from any number of computers, phones and tablets, clearing the data on your computer doesn't remove it from Google's servers where it resides forever.

By not signing in to your Google account, you may miss some of the conveniences, but you provide less information to Google.

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Microsoft Edge

While Microsoft Edge is based upon Chrome, it is more tightly locked down.

The most important difference between the new Edge and Google Chrome strikes right at the heart of Google's business model. By default, the new Edge turns on tracking protection and sets it to Balanced, which blocks many ads and almost all third-party tracking code. — ZDNet

Privacy Settings

Edge has more privacy settings than Chrome, and it's much easier to track them down. For example, Edge can block trackers from sites you've visited and those you haven't. It can also reduce the odds of your personalized information being shared across sites. — Digital Trends

Adjust System Settings

It defaults to running continuously in the background unless you turn off “Continue running background apps when Microsoft Edge is closed” in the System settings option.

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Apple Safari

Safari is Apple's default browser and they have made great efforts to improve the privacy protections.

The “Good Privacy” Browser

Some of those changes were aimed at fighting ad-tracking and digital fingerprinting of the Safari browser.

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Don't Use Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer (IE) is a major security vulnerability within Windows and therefore should not be used as your primary browser when surfing the Internet.

You see, Internet Explorer is a compatibility solution. We're not supporting new web standards for it and, while many sites work fine, developers by and large just aren't testing for Internet Explorer these days. They're testing on modern browsers. — Chris Jackson, Microsoft

Security risks are not unique to Internet Explorer but its reach is deep into the Windows operating system, making it more vulnerable to security issues than any other browser.

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Browser Settings

Don't simply install your browser. Customize the settings to ensure that you've locked it down as tightly as you can.

Do Not Track

Current browsers have the capability of telling a site that you don't want to be tracked. But that assumes that a site will bother to respond. There are few, if any, such mechanisms in place.

Do Not Track (DNT) is a browser setting where the user can indicate that they don't want to be tracked. However, without a consensus about how to interpret DNT, most sites ignore the setting:

At this time, there is no general agreement on how companies interpret Do Not Track signals. This site does not currently respond to DNT signals, whether the signal is received on a computer or on a mobile device.

Interpretation: Tracking you is profitable, so I'll just ignore the DNT and claim it is because there isn't agreement on interpretation.

If it were profitable (like copyright or patents), these corporations would have found a solution long ago.

Legislation Required

If if wasn't so profitable to track users and their metadata, I'm sure that standards could be accomplished.

Early anti-spam technical fixes failed because no one wanted to accept anyone else's solution. The result? The huge amount of spam we have to deal with today.

I wonder if the desire to ignore such requests is behind the failure to cooperate in a respected standard.

Even when Do Not Track is enabled, some facilities also track store visitors via their cell phone using Mobile Location Analytics.

It will probably take legislation to enforce such a mechanism and governments are implicit in the collection of metadata and its storage without court oversight.

Still Worth Setting

It is still worth setting the DNT.

[D]espite the fact that only a small number of companies respect it — a significant number of companies like Twitter, Medium and others do respect it. — Jules Polonetsky

Hopefully, when there is a universally-accepted standard in place, all websites will honour them. At the present time not all browsers have a DNT setting.

Learn more about fingerprinting and other techniques that are used track you online, even if you are using privacy-protection software.

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HTTPS Encryption

Much of the Internet is broken, a result of greed and exploitation at the expense of those who simply want information and entertainment but don't consider the risks of their behaviour.

The following recommendations make using your browser safer.

Use Encrypted HTTPS Sites Where Possible

HTTPS is a secure protocol used by websites that encrypts traffic between the site's server and your browser.

The content of your web request and the reply that comes back can't easily be monitored by other people on the network. This makes it much harder (nearly, if not absolutely, impossible) for attackers to eavesdrop on secrets such as passwords, credit card numbers, documents, private photos and other personal files that show up in your network traffic.

 

HTTPS traffic isn't just encrypted, it's also subjected to an integrity test. This stops attackers sneakily altering or corrupting data in transit, such as replacing bank account numbers, changing payment amounts or modifying contract details. — Sophos Blog

Secure sites are indicated by https:// (notice the s) in the address and/or some sort of a padlock symbol. The display varies by browser:

How HTTPS is indicated in the address bar of Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome

  • Firefox, Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge and Opera all use a padlock to the left of the address.
  • The shield beside the padlock in Firefox indicates enhanced tracking protection.
  • Firefox and Edge display the HTTPS prefix. Chrome, Safari and Opera don't.

Connect Only to HTTPS Sites

I strongly recommend that you only connect to sites that are encrypted with HTTPS (HTTP over TLS), especially you're logging in or whenever you're sharing personal information.

HTTPS across the Web is good for Internet Health because it makes a more secure environment for everyone. It provides integrity, so a site can't be modified, and authentication, so users know they're connecting to the legit site and not some attacker. Lacking any one of these three properties can cause problems. More non-secure sites means more risk for the overall Web. — Mozilla Blog

This is particularly important when using online banking or when shopping online — anywhere that you are sharing banking or credit card details.

Avoid Unsecured Sites

Unsecured (non-HTTPS) sites are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.

Without HTTPS, there are many places along the way between your browser and the other end where not-so-innocent third parties could easily eavesdrop on (and falsify) your web browsing.

 

Those eavesdroppers could be nosy neighbours who have figured out your Wi-Fi password, other users in the coffee shop you're visiting, curious colleagues on your work LAN, your ISP, cybercriminals, or even your government. — Sophos Blog

Site owners should ensure their site is encrypted if they wish to retain the trust of visitors to their site.

Many sites scrape information and engage in cross-site tracking. Facebook and Google are the worst offenders.

This is a one sided bargain that benefits advertisers and data brokers. It formed the surveillance economy that has taken over the Internet.

Watch for Insecure Content on HTTPS Sites

Watch for warnings on HTTPS sites that indicate that some content is not being handled securely. This often results from insecure links to images and similar material.

Such content could also indicate metadata collection or fingerprinting.

Because it degrades the security of the site, most browsers now list such mixed-content HTTPS sites as insecure.

HTTPS:// Everywhere

HTTPS:// Everywhere is a Firefox, Chrome, and Opera extension that encrypts your communications with many major websites, making your browsing more secure.

Firefox HTTPS-only Mode

Firefox has HTTPS-only mode:

HTTPS provides a secure, encrypted connection between Firefox and the websites you visit. Most websites support HTTPS, and if HTTPS-Only Mode is enabled, then Firefox will upgrade all connections to HTTPS.

When an HTTPS option cannot be located, Firefox warns you that a secure connection is not available, telling your that it is most likely that the site doesn't support HTTPS, including this caveat:

It's also possible that an attacker is involved. If you decide to visit the website, you should not enter any sensitive information like passwords, emails, or credit card details.

 

If you continue, HTTPS-Only Mode will be turned off temporarily for this site.

Firefox DNS Over HTTPS (DoH)

DNS (Domain Name Server) is the process by which the domain name that is easier for humans to remember (e.g. Wikipedia.org) is converted into the numerical address much like phone numbers (e.g. 208.80.154.224) that computers on the Internet can understand.

Unfortunately, this process can be tracked or spoofed, so Mozilla added security:

We are introducing two new features to fix this — Trusted Recursive Resolver (TRR) and DNS over HTTPS (DoH). Because really, there are three threats here:
  1. You could end up using an untrustworthy resolver that tracks your requests, or tampers with responses from DNS servers.
  2. On-path routers can track or tamper in the same way.
  3. DNS servers can track your DNS requests.
  4. Mozilla

Site Owners: Enable HTTPS

If you're a site owner, ensure that your site has HTTPS enabled by default. HTTPS sites are more secure and load faster.

Now, with the ever increasing percentage of HTTPS sites, it is the share of sites using the HTTP protocol that is getting smaller and smaller. — Ghacks

The continued use of a legacy HTTP address sends the wrong message: that your site is insecure and likely not properly maintained.

Chrome and Firefox Now Default to HTTPS Sites

Browsers are starting to default to HTTPS sites in order to help secure the Web.

This is annoying to the site visitor and greatly reduces confidence in non-HTTPS sites, which is bound to affect the SEO.

Let's Encrypt

What's stopping you from securing your site with HTTPS?

HTTPS certification used to be expensive but Let's Encrypt, a non-profit option, now provides free site certificates.

Enabling HTTPS requires action on your part, including changes in your hosting service settings, but cost should no longer be a factor.

 

Your Browser Tracked

Many websites monitor your browser to track your progress as you surf the Web.

The surveillance economy has thrived on the creation and selling of personal profiles.

This has come at the cost of your privacy. Become aware of the tools they use.

Firefox Recommended

Firefox is recommended because of Mozilla's stand on privacy:

Cookies

Cookies are a necessary part of today's normal web. When you log into a site, a cookie is generated or altered to track your login status.

Without that “same-site” cookie, the site would not know whether or not a user was properly authenticated during the login process.

Reporting Your Web Habits

Unfortunately, companies often use cookies maliciously to track you from site to site for advertising or profiling purposes.

While this may improve profitability, it does so at the expense of your privacy.

We're all tired of that uneasy feeling we get when we see an ad online that seems to know too much about us.
Mozilla

Managing Your Cookies

You can deal with cookies using some of the many utilities available on the Net or by using the tools provided by modern browsers.

I tend to close the browser and clear out cookies and other tracking frequently, and certainly before logging onto sites where I maintain household or banking accounts.

Chrome Listens to Marketers, Not Users

Google is delaying its deprecation of tracking cookies.

Unlike Chrome, Firefox respects your privacy choices.

Opt-Out Cookies

The Network Advertising Initiative offers to place an opt-out cookie on your computer for certain ad servers such as DoubleClick.

ANY opt-out solution is a unethical.

The right thing is to honour the Do Not Track setting in the browser

Requiring people to register and maintain another cookie doesn't protect privacy.

Supercookies

Supercookies are a class of cookies know as unique identifier headers (UIDHs).

They are much harder to delete or block than regular cookies.

They employ troublesome Flash storage, ETags and HSTS flags.

The X-UIDH header effectively reinvents the cookie, but does so in a way that is shockingly insecure and dangerous to your privacy. In fact, it functions even if you use a private browsing mode or clear your cookies. — EFF

Supercookies make it nearly impossible for users to protect their privacy as they browse the web.

Flash Cookies

Many sites used flash cookies (Local Shared Objects or LSOs) that are not deleted when you remove traditional cookies.

Support has ended for Flash so LSOs should no longer work.

Browser Fingerprinting

Users have begun to use ad-blockers and other privacy extensions including Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

Sites use a number of sneaky tactics to track your movements on the Web.

One is browser fingerprinting which looks for a number of trackable identifiers.

A digital fingerprint is essentially a list of characteristics that are unique to a single user, their browser, and their specific hardware setup.

 

This includes information the browser transmits inherently, like in an HTTP request, as well as a host of seemingly insignificant data (like screen resolution and installed fonts) gathered by tracking scripts.

 

Tracking sites can stitch all the small pieces together to form a unique picture, or "fingerprint," of the user's device. — EFF

Fingerprinting is much more difficult for users to combat because, unlike cookies, it's use can't be detected.

Nor can the user easily change the characteristics being tracked.

Cover Your Tracks

Cover Your Tracks shows you how trackers view your browser.

As part of EFF, dedicated to fighting for your privacy, your privacy is protected.

Clear Your Browsing History

Your browsing history can be used by online ad companies to fingerprint individual browsers over time.

Clearing your browsing history limits the amount of information available to such fingerprinting efforts.

FLoC

FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) is Google's answer to the elimination of third-party cookies.

By gathering the information about a user's history and grouping them with users with a similar history, the advertiser could reach the intended market, supposedly without breaching privacy.

[Y]our FLoC ID will be like a succinct summary of your recent activity on the Web. — EFF

The issue of creating a Web without all the surveillance and tracking is defeated by any such program.

Testing for FLoC

Google is testing FLoC in Google Chrome versions 89 and above.

According to Google, the trial currently affects 0.5% of users in selected regions, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United States. — EFF

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Related Resources

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RussHarvey.bc.ca/resources/safer-browsing.html
Updated: September 2, 2021