Thursday, September 1, 2011

Browser Add-ons Part 3: Better Privacy

A lot of data accumulates on our computers just browsing the Internet, and its primary purpose is to speed up loading revisited webpages by using the local information instead of fetching it each time off the Internet. Browsers locally store browsing history, download history, form and search history, cookies, active logins, cache, saved passwords, website preferences, and offline website data. In the days of slower Internet connections, such as dial up, this was a big help. These days, with nearly everyone using high speed Internet, I question whether most of this locally stored information is even necessary anymore, or a good idea. While there are both some security and privacy issues with this model I will focus on privacy in this post.

I've mentioned in past blog posts that scripts run in the background, and its those scripts that push the advertising at us. If you have ever wondered how those advertisements seem to know your interests it's because the scripts were snooping at all that browsing data that is stored on your computer. There is more to it than just pushing ads. Some companies are also collecting our personal information for business purposes. There is nothing evil in this for the most part but, we aren't being asked if it is OK for them to collect this information. Doing it without our knowledge is what makes it a bit creepy. I don't let strangers into the house to rummage through my cabinets on a fact finding mission just so they can push more products my way, and yet this is what is essentially happening in our browsing sessions. These kinds of cookies install and track without our consent making them so unwelcome.

Like Ghostery, Better Privacy is built to manage persistent LSOs (Local Shared Objects), also known as Flash Cookies, Super Cookies, and Evercookies. LSOs are objects that return after being removed. They return because their root information is stored on our computers in a place other than where the typical browser data is stored. These kinds of cookies are becoming more prevalent, so being able to manage them is increasingly important.

I like Better Privacy because it offers finite control over which LSOs we might want to keep, and those we don't. Yeah, there actually might be a reason to keep a few of these around. For example, some gaming websites might use an LSO to store scores, or level of play. Nuking that from the computer may reset play to the beginning level or kill off the high score.

The latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari offer a couple ways to control what is locally stored on our computers. One way is to use Private Browsing, and the other is to nuke all the session data when the browser is closed. Starting with Adobe Flash Player 10.1, Flash Player will interact with the browser's privacy settings which means that Adobe Flash cookies will abide by the rules of the browser. This is a big step for Adobe because Flash cookies are the most prevalent type of LSO. So, if your browser has been nagging you to update flash player, now is a good time to do it.

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