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How to Browse the Web In Safety From Cyber Criminals

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Web browsing is how we access and search the internet. You use a browser (like Safari, Chrome, Firefox or Explorer) to access the internet. Web browsers such as Safari, Firefox or Google Chrome, provide access to search engines like google who in turn provide a structured way to search the internet. Search engines provides us links to the content we’re looking for. The link itself is called a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) and is displayed in the bar at the top of your web browser and shows you the website page you are currently viewing.

'Incognito' Mode

A lot of you may have already heard about private browsing and ‘incognito modes’ many browsers now have. This feature prevents your device creating temporary files and so it keeps your browsing history off that device. Great for preventing your partner accidentally finding out what you’ve got them for their birthday or hiding your search history from your children, however, your browsing history is still accessible to anyone outside of your device (employer, school, neighbour, your internet service provider, etc). We therefore need something else in our arsenal in order to ensure our online privacy.

How to Browse Securely

In order to browse securely, we may need one or more of the following three things;

1) Secure Browser – the application on your computer that accesses the internet (Windows Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Chrome). We can either lock down the settings of our usual browser or using a dedicated secure browser like Brave. Secure browsers have been built with security and privacy in mind from the start. Everyone needs to lock down their browser settings – not everyone will need a dedicated secure browser like Brave.
2) Virtual Private Network (VPN) – an application that uses encryption to create a secure connection between your device and the internet when you’re using insecure WiFi (e.g. airport, hotel, coffee shops). Everyone should use when using public WiFi
3) Two Factor Authentication (2FA) – uses a unique code generated on you’re a device of your choosing (e.g. smartphone) which you enter along with your usual login credentials, to significantly reduce the ability of hackers getting access to your online accounts (they would need physical possession of your smartphone!). Everyone should use when accessing sensitive online accounts (e.g. online banking, online email, investment and pension accounts, etc.)

So, we all need to tighten the security of our internet browser. When we’re browsing in a public place we’ll want to step up our security using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Then for our most sensitive activities, e.g. logging in to accounts that hold sensitive personal data (e.g. bank accounts, trading accounts, pension accounts, health insurance accounts, etc.) we’ll want to use two factor authentication (2FA) to ensure only we access these accounts.

Quad9 Protection

Before we even decide which one we want to use, there is something we can do to increase our security irrespective to which browser we choose! It’s called Quad9 Protection and was setup by some big players like IBM and Global Cyber Alliance in collaboration with the UK Police Force. In short, you change your network settings on your home PC/laptops to route through their secure datacentres (which also can speed up your internet!) and they will block known scam and hacked websites that your browser tries to access. It takes 2-5 mins to setup, just go to www.quad9.net and follow their instructions.

Now we have implemented Quad9, we can move on to picking a secure browser.

Which Internet Browser is Most Secure?

Yes, some internet browsers are more secure than others. All browsers have security vulnerabilities, but some have more than others. I would avoid Internet Explorer (IE) and Microsoft Edge altogether as IE is now unsupported by Microsoft (and therefore they won’t be issuing any further security patches) and Edge security patches are issued really slowly, taking around 30-60 days once a vulnerability is identified. Whereas Chrome, Firefox and Safari are all in the hours to today’s range which is much more secure as it significantly shortens the window that cyber criminals will have to exploit the vulnerability. I recommend using Safari, Firefox or Chrome. For all three of these browsers, we will want to lock down the security and privacy settings. The actions to perform are;

  • Check for software updates in the browser. Go to settings and there should be the option to check for updates.
  • Next, find the security and privacy configurations in the browser settings. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can go to the websites below to find out how to best tighten the controls specific to your browser;

o Chrome: truste.com
o Safari: apple.com/safari/features.html#security
o Mozilla: support.mozilla.org

  • Download the ‘HTTPS Everywhere’ plug-in and install for your browser (except Safari). When sending sensitive information over the internet always check if a website is https:// instead of http://. Sites that use https:// add an extra layer of security because they encrypt your connection. This is what HTTPS Everywhere does for us, but it cannot do every website in the world so it’s always best to check. Safari doesn’t support it but it has something called "Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.0" which provides much of this capability anyway.
  • If you’re worried about family or friends snooping on your browser history, you can use the ‘incognito mode’ to prevent your browser from saving your web history – great for around Christmas shopping time!
  • Limit use of plug-in’s where possible – they can be dangerous because many of them store your IP address (think of your IP address as your virtual postal address). Some websites can get this IP address data from these insecure plug-in’s and reveal your identity and physical location.
  • Restrict cookies. Cookies aren’t the beautifully salty, mouth-watering cranberry and white chocolate circles of heaven my wife cooks on the odd occasion. Cookies are little packets of information that websites can drop into our browsers to extract information on us. Most commonly (and usefully!), they auto-fill forms to prevent us having to type out our basic personal information (name, postal address, email, etc.) over and over again! Useful little critters. However, they can be highly invasive, tracking our internet movements over weeks at a time to deliver targeting marketing to us in the form of search engine ads. Naughty cookies. You can clear cookies and your browser cache on a semi-regular basis (monthly) but I find some cookies useful. On balance, I would suggest accepting these – there’s other things in this list that helps prevent websites tracking us. When given the choice, decline the invasive marketing ones.
  • Opt-Out of Tracking – go to your browser’s privacy settings and turn on ‘Do Not Track’.
  • Stop your browser sending location data. If it turns out to be a real inconvenience, you can always re-enable it! To disable location data, go to your browser settings as below;

Safari – Preferences > Privacy, disable location services.
Firefox – Type “about:config” in the URL bar, then “geo.enabled”. Double-click to disable location entirely.
Chrome – Preferences > Settings > Advanced > Content settings, and deny sites tracking your physical location.

  • Keep your browser updated. Download new versions as soon as you’re prompted as they will likely contain important security patches.
  • Many advise that you deactivate Flash, ActiveX and, where possible, JavaScript but doing so is likely to be a hindrance, e.g. video content not working when you want to get your daily fix of funny cat videos. I would rely on the other security controls you’ve put in place above and not bother as this will likely significantly impact your browsing experience.

Sounds Like A lot to Do Right? Try The 'Brave' Browser...

If all of the above sounds like a lot to do, you can use a dedicated secure browser called ‘Brave’.

Disclaimer: again, for anyone not familiar with me - I do not get any commissions or benefit whatsoever from third parties. I recommend products on merit only.

Brave is a niche browser specifically designed to hide your identity, block tracking and ads and enable online privacy. It includes ‘HTTPS Everywhere’ discussed above and ensures you have a secure connection no matter what website you’re connecting to. What’s more, because it blocks data greedy adverts it loads 8.7x faster than Chrome and will save you ££s in data download charges. The vast majority of tasks you’ll have to do manually above for your native browser, Brave does automatically for you so why make your life harder? It’s also free!

Whether you use Brave or configure your existing browser manually, either one of these options will provide you with the ability to browse securely. Hopefully, after reading the manual tasks you can now appreciate the value in a browser like Brave and the amount of admin it prevents us having to do.

Top Tip: you can use an internet browser plug-in like ‘Ghostery’ to increase your online anonymity. Ghostery significantly reduces the amount of tracking websites can do when you surf and limits the amount of information your browser shares with the outside world.

Secure browsers help us stay secure when we’re browsing the internet but the internet traffic we send from our browsers, is still unprotected. This means that if we’re using an insecure WiFi connection then all our internet searching could be visible to anyone wishing to eavesdrop on us. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) prevent this (along with a number of other additional benefits).

As discussed earlier, to be fully secure online, you should also be using something called a ‘VPN’ when you’re out and about (away from your home WiFi) and enabling two factor authentication on your key online accounts (shopping, social media, financial / investments, etc.). Checkout the links below to read my blog posts on each of these;

Virtual Private Networks – click here
Two Factor Authentication – click here

With these three protection mechanisms, you’ll be more secure than 99% of people out there, helping protect your family from being a victim of cyber crime!

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