You can find almost anything on the internet, whether you’re doing serious research or settling an argument about song lyrics or old movies. But while you’re surfing for information, other people are probably gathering information on you, courtesy of your browsers. Some of that information can be good: for example, your bank or favorite online shopping sites store “cookies” (small data files) on your computer so they can recognize you when you visit their site again. Some of it is less benign, such as browsing history that could embarrass you or cookies that are used by third parties to deliver unwanted advertising that can also contain malicious software.
You can protect your privacy through your browser’s privacy settings. (Usually these are found in the main drop-down menu under Privacy or Settings.) Each browser is slightly different, but here are the basic settings you need to consider.
- Enable/disable cookies: This setting determines whether these small data files can be stored on your computer. Disabling cookies entirely can interfere with online banking and shopping, but you may want to disable third-party cookies, which are often used to track your behavior by businesses that then sell that information about you to others.
- Prohibit tracking: This setting blocks web sites that keep track of your behavior on their site (where you go, what links you click on, etc.).
- Remember/don’t remember history: Your browser uses your browsing history to automatically fill out often-visited URLs or offer choices of most recently visited sites. However, anyone else who uses your computer, or hackers, could also use that history against you. You can turn off the history feature, or you can set your browser to clear history when you close it.
- Anonymous surfing or private browsing: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome include special settings that tell your browser not to save your surfing history, search queries, cookies, download history, or passwords. (Regardless of privacy settings, never have your browser remember passwords!)
In addition to these basic settings, you may want to block specific websites from coming up on your browser. For example, if one pops up that you think is malicious or inappropriate, you can go to the browser history and block it. You may want to opt of having your address book synched with your browser, making it harder for cyber thieves to use your address book for spam campaigns. And if your browser has a feature to block dangerous sites and content, you should use it.
Browser providers are constantly changing and improving their privacy and security features, so read the notes and check the settings each time you install an update. (And do update regularly, so you have the latest security patches.)