Web browsers offer more protection than you may think

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Sam Alapati, senior technical director, Miro Consulting
Sam Alapati, senior technical director, Miro Consulting

Everyone frets about online (in)security, little knowing that right on your computer there is something that  you totally control which can enhance your security manifold: your humble web browser.

Today's web browsers are a far cry from their predecessors of just a couple of years ago. Modern-day browsers are laden with security features that can virtually keep you from ever experiencing a bad hack, so long as you are ready to take advantage of what they offer.

When it comes to browser security, you're looking at the capability of the browser to protect you against pesky pop-up advertisements, malware and fraudulent phishing attempts. The browser should also let you clear personal information to enhance your online security, because it is through the browser that you perform all of your sensitive online actions, such as banking transactions.

Features at a glance

At a minimum, a browser should provide pop-up blocking, anti-spyware, anti-phishing and anti-virus. In addition, the browser must also have a feature to let you clear the history of your onsite visits and one that enables you to surf privately.

The "history" feature is well known. It offers you the capability to delete the history of your website visits, and lets you delete cookies, saved passwords and form entries. Private mode is a stealth feature included on some browsers that doesn't record any history at all. It also doesn't save any passwords or cookies, which is the default in the normal browser mode.

Anti-phishing capabilities are less well understood. If your browser has this capability, it'll notify you when a website you get on has the characteristics of a site that can launch a phishing scam.

A phishing attack creates a spurious website that looks like the real website. The hacker then uses this fake site to steal a user's sensitive information such as credit card numbers.

Three web browsers – Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer (IE) – offer all the critical browser security features described earlier. Opera and Apple Safari do not.

For example, Safari doesn't protect you against phishing schemes, and neither browser offers a private browsing mode.

The top three

My personal favorite is Firefox, because it is superior to other browsers in just about every area, including ease of use and speed. Your internet activity doesn't leave any traces, and your critical information is not stored anywhere on your computer.

Firefox offers parental controls, automated security updates and an integrated password manager. It also lets you view safety information for a website by clicking on the site in the location bar.

Firefox also uses Google's Safe Browsing service to automatically block websites that are known hosts of malware. You can also check the "Block reported attack sties" box to keep known bad websites from opening.

Firefox also updates its database of malicious websites multiple times every day to enhance its anti-phishing capabilities.

Google Chrome is unique among the leading web browsers in several ways, one of which is the way multiple tabs run independent of each other within the browser, a process known as sandboxing. Since each tab essentially uses a separate process, malware that hits one of the tabs stays isolated within that tab – you can simply close that tab to terminate the process and keep the malware from trying to install itself on your computer.

Of course, this adds to the overall security of this browser. In addition, Chrome has an "Under the Hood" browser option, where you should always check the "Enable Phishing and Malware Protection" setting to protect yourself.

IE also has several additional security features and lets you download additional security tools from the add-ons provided on Microsoft's website.

An interesting security feature offered by IE is that the browser lets you control which of your information is shared with web tracking services. You can, if you wish, block all trackers, or select which services must be blocked from tracking your internet usage.

You can do this by going to Tools->"InPrivate Filtering Settings" and selecting "Let me choose which providers receive my information."

***

Today's leading web browsers have many sophisticated security features, some of which are turned on automatically for you, but several of which you must configure yourself.

Do yourself a big favor by exploring the configuration settings of your browser, mostly located under the "Tools" section.

All the security features you can configure are self-explanatory, and you don't have to be a computer whiz to transform your web browser into a highly powerful deterrent to hacking attempts.
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