(Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Tools web browsers use to secure users’ privacy, data

  • Browsers are cracking down on ad trackers, malicious websites by raising their security game
  • Supercookies are tracking cookies that are more difficult to detect and remove

New Delhi: It is very common for internet users to turn to traditional privacy features like private or incognito modes in web browsers when they want to keep their online activities private. What many don’t realise is that these private modes only help users hide browsing sessions from people sharing the same device by not saving the user data locally. However, there are many privacy threats which is outside their scope, like tracking over the network by advertisers and websites, claims a 2018 joint study by the University of Chicago and Leibniz University, Hannover.

Websites can track users in several ways. IP address allows websites to determine a user’s geographical location. Fingerprinting is a more invisible form of tracking, and is believed to be used by two-third websites, as per a May 2019 study by University of London. It uses a combination of elements such as the screen resolution, version of operating system, fonts installed on the device and Wi-Fi settings to identify a user.

Cookies allow websites to save information about users as text files on the device so they can identify users and remember their preferences and interests when they return. While designed for user convenience, things like cookie syncing and supercookie are being used for unfair practices. Browsers have started cracking down on them by providing greater control to users over their online data and settings.

Earlier this month, Mozilla announced that it will now block third-party trackers by default through its enhanced tracking protection tool in the Firefox browser. “The general argument from tech companies is that consumers can always decide to dive into their browser settings and modify the defaults. The reality is that most people will never do that," said Peter Dolanjski, product manager, Firefox in a June 2019 blog post. For the more aware users who understand what they are dealing with, Firefox will give the option to choose the kind of privacy they want. The Standard mode allows some trackers so that websites can function properly, Strict mode blocks all trackers; Firefox detects and might interfere with the working of some websites. Custom mode allows users to choose what kind of trackers they are willing to tolerate.

Some browsers like Epic are designed with privacy at its core. Epic not only blocks fingerprinting scripts and functions like image canvas data access, but also doesn’t save browser history, shortcuts or login data. It also offers features like encrypted proxy that hides IP address and keeps the browser activities of users hidden from data collectors. Opera is another browser that offers in-built ad blockers. Google Chrome will soon have an ad blocker of its own.

Apple’s Safari browser is using machine learning to identify advertisers ad trackers so it can identify and remove cross-site tracking data they leave behind. It also prevents websites like Facebook from tracking users when they are on other websites through like or share buttons without permission.

Another area where browsers are upping their game is security. While features like sandboxing have helped Chrome, Safari and Firefox to contain the threat, browsers are trying out new things. Google is testing a new feature called Navigation Suggestions for lookalike uniform resource locators (URLs), in beta releases of Chrome browser. It can identify lookalike URLs and warn users about them. Safari browser can also identify and flag suspicious websites with malicious content and prevent it from loading.

For Chrome users, Google recently launched a Password Checkup extension, which can tell users if their passwords have been compromised so they can change it. Also websites which are not protected via hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) are flagged with a Not Secure warning so users would know which websites to avoid.

Browsers like Tor encrypt all communication, keeping users internet protocol (IP) address, activities and location anonymous. Mozilla is working on a subscription-based VPN service in partnership with Switzerland-based ProtonVPN, which will cost $10 per month and will be available in Firefox browser on PC and smartphones.

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Web surfers beware

■ Supercookies are tracking cookies that are more difficult to detect and remove

Cookie syncing allows two advertising platforms to share information they have gathered about the same user.

■ Third-party cookies are used by websites from a different domain to track user activities on another website

■ Sandboxing isolates all activities in a browser, restricting malicious code in one tab from affecting others

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