Big things are brewing in the browser industry, which is good news for all Web denizens, regardless of your browser preference. At the same time, your current browser can probably be made safer through the proper application of the right security add-ons.
Top browsers in a state of continuous enhancement
Google's Chrome browser continues to garner much of the attention of the computer press two years after its release--and for good reason. Frequent, automatic updates and a clutter-free interface are two of the many features that set Chrome apart from the competition, as Stephen Shankland describes in his DeepTech blog.
But Chrome can't match the number and variety of free add-ons and extensions available for the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser, version 4 of which is right around the corner. Two noteworthy new features in Firefox 4 are Panorama, which attempts to address the problem of tab overload, and Sync, which coordinates your personal data regardless of the machine you're using.
Also on the horizon is Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9, which Seth Rosenblatt describes as "the biggest overhaul to the browser since Internet Explorer 7 landed." Even with the many enhancements in the Firefox 4 and IE 9 betas, it will likely be several months before those versions are in widespread use.
Firefox's many security add-ons are a principal reason people choose the browser over IE, Chrome, and other alternatives. I described five privacy add-ons for Firefox in a post from last July. Last November, I wrote about essential Firefox security add-ons, and a few days after that post, I compared the security features in IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera.
IE 8's privacy and security
Even though it's not as dominant as it was 8 or 10 years ago, Internet Explorer continues to hold about 60 percent of the browser market. For many people, the little blue "e" is their one and only entry to the Web--they may not even realize the program has a name.
If you use Internet Explorer, the most important thing you can do to improve your safety on the Web is to upgrade to version 8. If you have Windows set to update automatically, you're probably already using the most recent release. To check your IE version, click Help > About Internet Explorer. (If you don't see the standard menu options at the top left of the IE window, press the Alt key to make them visible.) You can also hover over the question mark icon in the top right of the browser and choose About Internet Explorer to see your current version.
I described steps you can take to tighten the security of Internet Explorer in a post from last January. What that post failed to mention was the importance of IE security add-ons. My favorite is the Web of Trust (WOT) toolbar, which aggregates the ratings of thousands of volunteers to indicate the reliability of sites listed in search results using a green-yellow-red color scheme.
After you download the WOT toolbar, you're offered a choice of three settings: Basic (recommended) rates all sites; Light indicates only poorly rated sites; and Parental Control blocks sites deemed unsafe for children. Another option allows you to enable the ratings for people who are color blind. (Note that WOT is also available for Firefox and Chrome.)
Protect against keystroke recorders
The most insidious forms of malware are programs that log every key you press in an attempt to collect your log-in IDs, passwords, credit card and bank account numbers, and other sensitive information. QFX Software's free KeyScrambler Personal works with IE and Firefox to encrypt your keystrokes as the information travels from your keyboard to the browser, where the keys are decrypted.
The $30 Pro version of KeyScrambler works with more than 100 applications, according to the company, and the $45 Premium version encrypts the keys you press in MS Office and more than 150 other programs, as well as the Windows log-in screen.
IE toolbar rates online shopping sites
Everybody loves a bargain, but some of the deals offered on the Web are too good to be true. One of the simplest ways to determine the trustworthiness of an online retailer is BuySafe's Shopping Advisor toolbar, which is available for both Internet Explorer and Firefox.
Click the toolbar's BuySafe Shopping button to open a window showing items offered by "bonded" merchants. The company guarantees your purchases up to $25,000 and promises to protect you against identity theft at no charge. You can also enter a vendor's URL in the Rating drop-down box to view a summary of the site's security rating.
Clear out cookies and other private data with one click
One of the most important new security features in Internet Explorer 8 is the Safety drop-down menu on the Command bar, which appears by default on the top right side of the browser. The menu lets you enter the browser's InPrivate mode or delete your cookies, temporary Internet files, and other browser history with a single click.
Unfortunately, clearing your cookies in this manner is an all-or-nothing affair. There's no equivalent to the Better Privacy add-on for Firefox that lets you manage your cookies file by file and deletes all but the cookies you've approved beforehand when you close your browser. (The "Browsing history" section under the General tab in IE's Tools > Internet Options dialog box does let you delete all browser history on exit, but not just some of your history.)
The closest I've found to this capability in IE is the free No More Cookies add-on that lists all the cookies on your system--including Flash cookies--and lets you delete or authorize some or all of them. Unfortunately, I could find no setting in the program to delete all unauthorized cookies automatically when you close the browser.
No More Cookies installs a cookie icon on the IE Command Bar as well as a No More Cookies option on the Tools drop-down menu. The program lacks many of the custom cookie management options available in Better Privacy, such as the ability to delete Flash cookies after a preset time of inactivity. Still, No More Cookies is a giant step up from the paltry cookie controls built into IE.