Browsers are the tools we use to get on the internet. Whether we click on the orange Firefox icon, the swirly blue Edge icon, the compass-y looking Safari icon, or the red “O” of Opera, the thing that opens is called a browser. And a browser is the thing we use on our computer or phone or tablet, that takes us to the internet to check our mail, search for something or someone, check our bank balance, or do some shopping.
Even though browsers have different names, they all do the same thing – they get us to the internet. Browsers also help companies build detailed user profiles about what you search for, which websites you go to, how long you spend on the internet, and even how long you spend on each site you visit. All in the name of forcing – I mean offering – accurate, targetable, and hopefully clickable advertisements to you.
What? You thought it was just a coincidence that you looked for a new seat for your tractor, and then for the next week or so, suddenly everyone was having sales and special promotions on tractor seats that fit your specific brand and model of tractor?
If you’re uncomfortable with this behavior, you can adjust quite a few settings on your browser of choice to regain some of your privacy. Not complete anonymity, though. After all, the internet and all these sites we visit are free, aren’t they?
There’s a term I first came across in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, often abbreviated as TANSTAAFL. In exchange for free access to their search engines and the content they point to on the internet, browser companies collect information about you and where you go to then sell to advertisers. There’s your TANSTAAFL.
The first thing you can do is change your default search engine to take some privacy back whichever browser you use. While DuckDuckGo has a silly name, it doesn’t track your searches, which is a start. You can do other things like turning off location tracking, turning off autocomplete and autofill options, and regularly deleting your browser history. Here are some specific settings for common browsers.
Right out of the box (do browsers come in boxes anymore, did they ever?) Firefox has the best default privacy settings. You can still tweak them to lock down Firefox even more. Click on the three-line menu in the upper right corner and choose Options. Now click on Privacy & Security. Of the three options, Standard comes selected. Read what Firefox does in Standard mode and decide if you want something more strict. If so, then you’re in luck! To get more privacy, click on the Strict setting to block everything in Standard mode plus more. Note: if you choose Strict, some websites might appear “broken” because the site wants to track you and what you’re doing. If Strict affects too many sites for you, go back into Privacy & Security and set it to Standard.
In Edge, use the three-dot menu in the upper right corner of the browser and choose Settings. Now click on Privacy, Search, and services. Microsoft uses the Balanced setting by default and offers a Strict mode. Again, Strict may throw some sites for a loop but will block the most trackers.
Chrome is the world’s most popular browser and also the least private. After all, Google makes Chrome, and Google wants to know everything about what everybody does everywhere and all the time. Does that mean Chrome is hopeless? Not at all. You do need to roll up your sleeves and install some browser extensions to make Chrome behave.
Wait, what? Browser extensions? It’s not as scary as it sounds; you can totally do this.
Open Chrome and type “chrome web store” in the search bar. Now you’re in the Web Store and on the Extensions page. In the search the store box, type in the name of the extension you want, and follow the instructions on the screen. Here are a couple of extensions you might want to add: uBlockOrigin, and Privacy Badger. Once you install those, Chrome will be nearly as private as the other browsers.
Since Apple positions itself as more privacy-oriented than other companies, it’s no surprise that Safari is pretty good about having good default privacy settings enabled right out of the box.
Safari 14 even offers a 30-day report of the known trackers it identified and blocked while you were browsing. It should be on by default, but you can confirm the setting by opening Preferences and making sure Prevent cross-site tracking is checked. To see which sites have left trackers in Safari, click on Manage web site data.
Has this ever happened to you?
Have you ever gotten so bored researching something on your computer that you grabbed your phone to see what the other, smaller internet is up to?
Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.