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The web browser has come a long, long way from humble origins. For many people these days, a good web browser is the only application you need on a computer – so much so that there are computers out there that are nothing more than a web browser delivery device. It should therefore come as no surprise that your choice of browser and browsing habits are a good place to start when it comes to taking back control of your privacy. These days, nearly all of the major browsers are fairly decent but some are more equal than others. Firefox is not necessarily the best browser but it is notable for a few reasons:

  1. Firefox is the only major browser that is 100% free and open source. Chrome and Safari are built on open source projects but the final products are not fully free and open.
  2. Firefox is the only major browser developed and backed by a non-profit corporation that has no proprietary interest in supporting web advertising, collection of personal information, or any other privacy-reducing trends or technologies.
  3. Firefox developers are regarded as doing the best job of keeping malware and adware out of their add-on marketplace.
  4. Firefox provides an “Extended Service Release” version that is kept up to date for a full year before being phased out. You will still need to install security updates as they come out, but major changes to the way the browser works and looks will only happen once a year rather than once every few months.

The proof of the pudding is, once again, in the eating and the proof of Firefox’s safety is in its implementations. Firefox is the basis for the Tor Browser Bundle, an anonymity service so powerful even the NSA are grumpy about it. Firefox is also the basis for the browser used in Tails, regarded as being one of the most secure operating systems in the world (Tor and Tails are a bit more advanced so I’ll talk about them in a later post but please check out the links now if you’re interested). The browser alone, though, is just part of the solution. Websites use cookies to store information on your computer. Sometimes, this information is useful – your Gmail settings, for example. But tracking cookies are a special type of cookie that is designed to uniquely identify you and track you as you move from site to site. You can manage cookies just using your browser settings but this can be a pain. Fortunately, the EFF has developed an add-on called Privacy Badger that looks specifically for tracking cookies and filters them out. It’s a great, simple way to stop this level of user tracking. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that social networking services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others can still track you if you’re logged in to their service – even when you’re not on their site. Not using these services isn’t always an option so for that, there’s Priv3+, a Firefox-only add-on that provides additional protections against this type of tracking. Firefox, along with other browsers, also supports the Do Not Track option and while it certainly doesn’t hurt to enable it, websites do not have to honor the setting. As an aside, the sad story of Do Not Track is yet another reminder that, rightly or wrongly, you are your own best advocate when it comes to controlling your privacy online. So far, so good but what else can you do to upgrade your browser? Remember that password manager you started using? They might have a browser add-on that will help you automate your log-ins to sites. LastPass and Dashlane make browser add-ons, for example. And another thing, always keep your browser and its add-ons up to date. This is especially true for high-risk add-ons like Java and Flash. Firefox will automatically keep itself up to date, and most of the add-ons I’ve listed here will update themselves as well. When you get prompted to install an update, please do so. For advanced users, Self-Destructing Cookies and, if you’re really gung-ho, NoScript are useful (albeit complex and high-touch) tools. Although not strictly in the scope of tracking for advertising purposes, HTTPS Everywhere and the Netcraft Toolbar can help to ensure that you’re always connecting to a secure site if it is available and give you reputation information about the site you’re connecting to. I also want to note that I haven’t included ad-blocking for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t believe showing ads is an inherent violation of privacy, or at least not at the same scale as the much more intrusive tracking that I address above. Second, I feel ad-blocking violates the spirit of the social contract of the web whereby seeing ads is part of what helps to keep so much of the content available for no cost. That said, if you disagree with me on this assessment, Adblock Plus is pretty much the go-to option so feel free to check it out.