There are lots of browser extensions that promise to protect your privacy, which leads to some natural questions: Which is the best? Do they all do the same thing? What should I really download? In this guide, we're going to look at the most popular browser extensions that promise to protect your privacy online, and give you our recommendations.
We've talked about why you should care about your privacy several times here, so whether you choose to do something to protect yourself is up to you -- we're not going to rehash it. Instead, we're going to dive into the tools available to keep your data safe. Most of them fall into three groups: add-ons that prevent third parties from tracking your movements, add-ons that block ads and scripts, and passive security tools that enforce good habits. Don’t worry though. You don't need to download a lot of apps to keep yourself safe and your data close to pocket. Here are the best in each group.
Block Ads, Scripts and Popups with AdBlock Plus
Ad and script blockers give you control over your browsing experience. They can block ads on the sites you visit and kill third-party scripts and widgets that send your data to who knows where. However, with great power comes great responsibility: If you don't know how to use them, these tools can break the sites you read, rendering them unusable until you figure out what to allow and what to block. Plus, blocking ads can has a very real impact on the site and the people who work on it (like us here at Lifehacker). Even so, it puts the power into your hands to decide which sites are worth supporting and which are just too annoying to use without an ad-blocker.
AdBlock Plus (Firefox/Chrome) blocks banner ads, pop-up ads, rollover ads and more. It stops you from visiting known malware-hosting domains, and also disables third-party tracking cookies and scripts. We think it has the right combination of ease of use, on-and-off toggling and hands-off management that makes it a tool that anyone can pick up and use. Power users can get their hands dirty with different subscription lists and tweaking the active lists they use, but basic users can enable it and walk away.
In our opinion, Adblock Plus is all you need, but there are a few other extensions that do the same thing. Here are your other options:
- FlashBlock for Firefox and for Chrome: Specifically blocks Flash until you load it, including web video, advertisements, and other annoying site elements. FlashBlock is well regarded and in use by a lot of people, but all it does is handle flash. It's a good install on the side if you want to, for example, stop YouTube videos from auto-playing. If you're looking to block ads though, AdBlock Plus is more useful and flexible.
Stop Everyone from Tracking You with Disconnect
Anti-tracking and anti-cookie extensions have exploded recently. We covered a number of them when we discussed how you can stop companies from tracking your movements on the web. Since then, the market has only grown, with more extensions and apps that all honestly do the same thing, with little more than UI tweaks and differences between them.
Disconnect (Firefox/Chrome/IE/Safari) is our pick because it continues to add useful features and improve its database, and its secure Wi-Fi and bandwidth optimisation features aren't available in other tools. It blocks third party tracking cookies and gives you control over all site scripts and elements from a simple-to-use toolbar menu. It also protects you from tracking by social networks like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which use your browsing even off-site to collect data about you. Finally, Disconnect protects you from sidejacking (or widgetjacking), where an attacker can use stolen cookies to access personal data without having to know your password, with its Secure Wi-Fi feature.
Disconnect is our favourite of the bunch, but there are other extensions that do the same thing (or some of the same things) if you need alternatives:
- Do Not Track Me (Firefox/Chrome/IE/Safari): Do Not Track Me offers a drop-down browser toolbar that shows you which tracking cookies and scripts have loaded on a site, and gives you the option to disable them entirely. It's similar to other tools, but with a friendly, colourful UI. It also leaves plug-ins and scripts enabled until you specifically turn them off. Disconnect is much more powerful and feature rich, Do Not Track Me might appeal to people who want to leave everything on and disable items selectively.
- Ghostery (Firefox/Chrome/Safari/IE): Much like the others, Ghostery blocks tracking cookies and scripts from running by default. It'll also show you what it's blocked, so you can see whether the items it's blocked are harmless or intrusive. Ghostery's database is huge, and gives you the power to block all, some, or none of the things that it finds. Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated in a while and Disconnect's features have surpassed it. Still, it's a solid alternative for people who can't get Disconnect's latest version.
- Priv3 (Firefox): Priv3 is probably the least intrusive and most transparent of this breed of privacy protecting add-on. All it does is stop social widgets and plugins from loading and sending your data to social networks until you interact with them. Since Facebook is tracking you and Twitter is tracking you, even when you're not using those networks, Priv3 is a lightweight tool to stop them, but keep in mind that it doesn't do anything else.
You could argue that Disconnect, Do Not Track Me and Ghostery all do the same thing, but we still think that Disconnect is the most robust of the three. That said, Disconnect's newest version is only available for Firefox and Chrome, so if you prefer Safari, IE or Opera, we'd suggest going with Ghostery instead.
Some of this comes down to personal preference and what works best in the browser you use most often, so don't hesitate to try something else if one doesn't work. The worst that can happen is you're extra protected, and none of these add-ons have that much resource overhead.
Additional Privacy Tools You Should Have
In addition to privacy protecting tools and ad blockers, a few other add-ons, utilities and services came up while we were researching this piece that you shouldn't roam the web without.
HTTPS Everywhere (Firefox/Chrome) is a must-have regardless of what other security tools you opt to use. Once installed, the extension will shunt your connection to SSL whenever possible, and will try to find secure versions of the sites you visit. It's a great way to protect your browsing without really lifting a finger. It can break some sites that weren't meant to work with HTTPS though, so you may have to whitelist sites from time to time if the secure version doesn't work.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts all of your internet traffic and offers the most possible protection from prying eyes. We've covered VPN services in detail before, including what to look for, what makes a good one, and some great providers to try. Look for a provider that keeps only the minimum required logs for troubleshooting purposes, offers strong encryption, is well regarded by its users and offers multiple exits locations. Contrary to common belief, don't just spring for any offshore VPN -- just because your VPN provider is in a far-off country doesn't mean it's secure, or at all private. For more suggestions, our friends at TorrentFreak just updated their list of providers that take your anonymity seriously, and it looks a bit like ours. If you're just looking for a free or freemium service to keep you protected while you're out and about, and you're not ready to try on a full, paid, VPN service yet (or roll your own), try Hotspot Shield, Hideman, or Tunnelbear.
Antivirus and Antimalware utilities are essential to protecting security. It may sound like "How to Internet: 101", but taking care to avoid suspicious sites, practice good internet hygiene (eg, not opening suspicious attachments, checking file names before you download), and keep updated antivirus and antimalware tools on your PC is important. Often the term "privacy" is couched in terms of advertising and marketing, but the risk of identity theft and getting infected with ransomware is growing. We've recently updated our pick for the best antivirus app for Windows, and we have some options for Mac as well. Looking for antimalware? These suggestions will get you started.
Other Security Tools You Probably Don't Need but May Want
We've covered the most important privacy and security tools you need already, but there's always another step you can take to make sure your communications can't be intercepted and read by third parties. Here are a few other tools you might consider:
- Web of Trust (WOT): (Firefox/Chrome/Safari/IE) WOT does a great job at ranking sites by reputation, and will show you whether a specific site has been known to host malware or is loaded with tracking cookies and scripts that could result in malware or adware on your system. It's not an ad blocker or anything, but it does rank and notify you when the site you're visiting is less than trustworthy. Advanced users may not need the hand-holding, but beginners and anyone else who wishes they could see behind the veil of what's loaded when they visit a site may.
- Encryption for Email and Chat: If you want to take desktop security to a whole new level, you might consider encrypting your email and instant messages. Our favourite chat clients for Windows and Mac, Pidgin and Adium (respectively) can both do this pretty easily. If you need another option, we've mentioned TorChat as well. For your email, SafeGmail or Mailvelope gets the job done for Gmail and other webmail users. For everyone else, PGP is the way to go.
- Tor (Windows/Mac/Linux) encrypts your web traffic and bounces it across a series of other computers, known as relays, to keep their location and browsing private and anonymous. Granted, that anonymity only goes so far: traffic leaving a Tor exit node is unencrypted, so while traffic inside the Tor network is encrypted and anonymous, ultimately your browsing comes out of someone else's pipe and looks like normal web traffic. Tor is built for anonymity with a nod to security -- not the other way around. You can read more about how Tor works here. It's a great way to stay anonymous on the internet, but don't mistake it for something like a VPN.
There's a lot of overlap between a lot of these tools, which is why we wanted to trim the fat and pick specifics that we think you should install. Keeping too many on your system isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can slow your computer down at worst and it doesn't offer you any additional protection at best. If you're not using any because you're not sure which to use, now you have some solid options. Either way, the tools are at your fingertips. It's never been easier to take the reins for yourself and make the web an opt-in experience instead of an opt-out one.