This week I’ve invited Thorin Klosowski, an editor at Wirecutter, to give us some advice covering our tracks online.
Everything you do online — from browsing to shopping to using social networks — is tracked, typically as behavioral or advertising data. But browser extensions are simple, generally free add-ons that you can use to slow down or break this type of data collection, without completely ruining your experience of using the internet.
Privacy almost always comes at the cost of usability. Sometimes a browser extension might cause a website to display text strangely, prevent embedded images or tweets from loading on a page, or remove the little social media buttons that make it easy to share an article. But in exchange for the occasional slight headache, companies will have a harder time tracking what you do online. Not all browsers offer the exact same extensions, but Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are the two most popular browsers, and the ones I focus on here
Ad blocker: uBlock Origin
Ad blockers are browser extensions that block intrusive pop-ups, invasive trackers and malicious ads. You have a lot of options for different ad blockers, but I’ve always found that uBlock Origin doesn’t hog system resources (an assumption others have confirmed), nor does it block so much that it ruins a site’s layout and functionality. I also like how easy it is to disable uBlock Origin on a case-by-case basis, either to allow ads on sites that aren’t annoying or to temporarily enable features uBlock tends to break, like comments sections.
Alternatives: I’ve found that AdBlock, AdBlock Plus and Ghostery all have steep learning curves or poor performance, but some people prefer them to uBlock Origin. If you want to go hard on ad blockers and kill every ad from every device on your home network, you can build a tiny computer dedicated to just that using Pi-hole software.
Tracking blocker: Privacy Badger
In conjunction with uBlock Origin, consider also running Privacy Badger, an extension designed to block tracking tools, the scripts that tend to record your visits and build profiles based on the websites you view. If you want to learn more about these types of trackers, type an address of a site into The Markup’s Blacklight tool, which lists the trackers it finds on a website and details what that tracking company does.
Alternatives: If you want to learn more about the trackers on the sites you visit, Disconnect can provide more detailed information, but it can be a bit overwhelming. Firefox has a built-in feature (powered by Disconnect) to block trackers, but some may get through, so we still recommend an extra add-on.
Secure connections: HTTPS Everywhere
See the little lock icon in your browser’s URL bar? That shows that this site uses HTTPS, a more secure version of HTTP (which is just the way your web browser and websites send information back and forth). HTTPS Everywhere forces your browser to go to the secure URL of a site, even if you click a link that doesn’t direct you there. According to Let’s Encrypt, the vast majority of U.S. sites now use HTTPS, but for the time being I still recommend using HTTPS Everywhere as a fail-safe (though this may change).
Login protection: Use a password manager
A password manager is the first step to protecting your online accounts. Password managers are usually accessed through a browser extension that generates, stores and fills your passwords as you browse the internet. This makes it easier, faster, and more secure to log in to websites. We like 1Password and Bitwarden. Most browsers can also save and fill passwords without a dedicated password manager, but they often don’t work across all operating systems (including your phone), or provide tools to securely generate or share passwords. A dedicated password manager is better at warning you about weak or compromised passwords.