It's getting more and more difficult to protect your privacy on the Web. Just as we're invited to share our thoughts and experiences with friends, family, and the universe, there's somebody recording it all and looking to make a buck from it, legally or otherwise. The key is to find the right balance between the Web's convenience and your security.
Here are five Firefox add-ons that help keep you safe on the Web without hindering your full use out of its best services. (Note that last month I described free Facebook security scanners, and in April I wrote about Facebook's Safety Center.)
Get more control over what Google serves up
Millions of people use Google services without every changing a setting other than their password from time to time (maybe). The OptimizeGoogle add-on is for the people who want to tweak the Google search interface. The program also lets you customize Gmail and remove ads from these and other Google services, including YouTube.
I didn't realize just how many ads appear in Google search results until OptimizeGoogle replaced them with links to the results on other search engines, including Yahoo, Bing, Wikipedia, Cuil, and Twitter. You can block ads on all Google services or selectively. The program also lets you make the Google cookie UID anonymous, prevent cookies from reporting to Google Analytics, and filter your search results.
Whenever you sign into a Google, Microsoft, or other Web account, you're inviting the service to track your browsing and search activities. Sometimes, this tracking comes in handy--Google's Web History feature makes it easy to retrace your steps.
The danger of maintaining such a detailed Web diary in the cloud is the risk of your personal information falling into the wrong hands. The solution is to track only the activities and information you want on the public record. One way to toggle Google's history recorder on and off is by using Moxie Marlinspike's GoogleSharing add-on that places an anonymizer button on the bottom-right of the Firefox window.
When GoogleSharing is enabled, all Web traffic other than Gmail and other signed-in Google services is sent through a proxy that makes it impossible for Google to identify it as yours. CNET's Tom Merritt's video tutorial explains how the program works and how to use it.
Another way to cover your Web tracks
Taking a similar obfuscatory approach to protecting your search activities is TrackMeNot from Daniel C. Howe, Helen Nissenbaum, and Janoss. The program runs in the background as a low-priority process and occasionally sends random search queries to hide those you submit in a flurry of inconsequential ones.
TrackMeNot's options let you choose which combination of four search engines to use (AOL, Bing, Google, and Yahoo). You can also set the random-search frequency and send bursts of fake search queries. The program logs its queries and lets you clear the log. Read more about TrackMeNot on the New York University site.
Give long-lasting Flash cookies the boot
Google and other search services aren't the only ones attempting to keep tabs on your browsing habits. Adobe's Flash Player uses Local Shared Objects (LSO), also known as Flash cookies, to allow Web sites to record your activities and personal information. And because the information resides outside the browser itself, there's no simple way to delete it.
The BetterPrivacy add-on removes Flash cookies automatically or selectively. After you install the program, it looks for the folder that stores LSOs and then waits until you close Firefox. Then it opens a window indicating the number of LSOs installed on your system and asking whether you want to view or clear your Flash cookies.
The program's main window--which you can access from the Firefox Tools menu--lists the origin, name, size, and date of the LSOs, as well as whether they are protected. Buttons on the bottom of the window let you protect or remove individual cookies, remove them all, or edit the protected list. Because many services require LSOs, BetterPrivacy takes no action until the browser closes.
Some Web services require a persistent Flash cookie to function properly, which is why you have to be careful not to delete one you need. The NettiCat site provides a link to an FAQ that can help you decide which Flash cookies to hold and which to dump.
Check for viruses from within Firefox
There are plenty of free antivirus programs and as many free virus-scanning Web sites. BitDefender QuickScan adds a button to the bottom of the Firefox window that lets you scan your memory for viruses in just seconds. No need to open a site or update a definition database.
I didn't test the service with a live virus, nor would I rely on any single tool to protect against viruses, but as an added layer of protection, it would be tough to beat BitDefender QuickScan's speed and convenience.
Two great privacy resources
Few organizations know more about or are more concerned with computer users' privacy than the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The organization's compendium of privacy tools includes information on spam blocking, anonymizer services, e-mail encryption, and firewalls.
Gizmo's Freeware site offers what it modestly calls Probably the Best Free Security List in the World, and after a half-hour of scrolling through it, I have to agree.
In addition to the standard security topics, the list covers data rescue and system cleaning and monitoring. But for me the information provided on system hardening, vulnerability scanning, and virus removal was more on point.