Browser extensions are a way to add additional functionality to a web browser, but they come at a high price. For many people, the web browser is the most used application on their computer and can potentially collect a large amount of information about you, your interests, and your habits.
By adding an extension to your browser, you are granting an additional party (besides the browser maker themselves) a window into your world. Potentially, anything you do in the browser is transparent to the browser extension, and often, this ability is abused.
Do you know who created an extension? Do you know why they created it? Was it a labor of love? Are they motivated by a social good? Are they collecting your data to sell to a third party? These are all questions that should be asked before installing a browser extension.
Is it better to forsake browser extensions? Maybe, or perhaps there is a way to harness this feature to protect yourself and your data.
In regards to privacy, the Web has become a dangerous place. Most places you visit will collect data about you, and many will attempt to track you as you move from site to site. Often, users are told that the data is anonymized, but that can often be easily undone. This is one reason why a certain class of extension has become ascendant.
However, there is no point in discussing these tools if the browser they run on either does not allow their full functionality (1, 2, 3) or is being subtly engineered to rest control away from end users.
Your first step to better browsing is making sure that you are using a browser that respects and empowers you. Here are a few options:
If the default protections of your browser are not enough, you can enhance your experience with extensions. It is probably best to:
- Try and use as few extensions as possible. Ask yourself, do you really need this extension? Is there a default way of getting the same functionality in the browser itself or through your GNU/Linux distribution?
- Verify who the creator of the extension is and what their goal is in creating/maintaining it. If they are trying to make a profit from their creation, do you understand their business model and are you comfortable with what it may entail?
- Install the extension from a verified, browser-endorsed repository (e.g., Firefox Add-ons if you use the Firefox browser)
- Peruse the extension's reviews. Make sure it has good reviews with a significant number of users (or is otherwise endorsed by your browser provider). This is not full-proof, but can be an indicator that you are going to be using a battle-tested extension that has proven useful to your browser's community.
If you are a Mozilla Firefox user and are looking for a way to better protect yourself online, check out the following extensions:
- uBlock Origin by Raymond Hill
- Cookie AutoDelete by CAD Team
- Privacy Possum by cowlicks
- HTTPS Everywhere by EFF Technologists
All of the above extensions are part of Mozilla's Recommended Extensions program, have high user ratings, and have tens of thousands (to millions) of users. Each extension provides unique functionality that enhances your browsing privacy or security.
If you decide to install them, take the time to explore their settings and find a configuration that works best for you. You can view your Firefox browser extensions by pressing Control+Shift+A.
iOS and Android devices do not give you the same transparency and control that a GNU/Linux system can provide, but people's web browsing is increasingly occurring on these devices. Here are some ways you can improve the privacy and security of your mobile browsing experience.
Some of the best Content Blockers to improve your iOS Safari experience include:
Also, iOS has browser apps that are customized for privacy and security:
You can configure your iOS Content Blockers by going to Settings > Safari > Extensions.
Android allows you to change your default web browser, so your best bet is to switch to a better browser and appropriately configure it.
You can find instructions on how to change your default web browser on Android here.