Browsers remain central to internet access

Written by Abhishek Puri | Updated: Nov 15 2012, 10:17am hrs
Internet privacy is a plural concept; not exactly in the Orwellian sense of the term. Therefore, it is difficult to argue it in a single point reference. Databases have grown exponentially and of several orders of magnitude that was not possible previously. Technological advancements and big data number crunching has come of age. Similarly, despite rise of smartphones and associated applications, death of prevalent computing platform is highly exaggerated. Browsers remain central to access to internet.

The infamous browser wars led to Netscapes demise in the 90s followed by Google Chrome and Firefox leading the attack on Microsofts dominance. The advantage with corporations is huge advertising spend to foster better brand recall but is not necessarily better. The focus of this write up would be Firefox because it is open source, extensible to the nth degree for both novices and power users as well as an ideal browser for privacy conscious.

Identifying the problem is part of the solution. Tracking users on internet is done by cookies or through browser finger printing, that is, identifying unique elements that can be linked back to the user. Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran a series of write ups quoting extensively from privacy advocates about various internet tracking systems like beacons and malicious scripts. A study by University of Berkeley done in 2011 has analysed the top 100 websites and found 5,675 cookies with most of them third party cookies transmitting data to 600 servers. A frightening scenario was unmasked with the discovery of Super or Ever Cookie. This was generated by tracking of cache via ETags, local Web application DOMStorage and Adobe Flash via Locally Stored Objects. This reviewer is concerned about individual freedom unencumbered by oversight of tracking systems designed to build his digital profile and reducing him to just a data stamp.

This brings us to browsers being central to this data collection efforts. Every Chrome install assigns you a unique ID which when linked to your Google Profile, helps them to customise the filter bubble for individual users. They are also able to target unique advertisements tailored to your use. It depends on individual users how much they trust a corporation to retain anonymous data. Although Do not Track headers have become fashionable (and controversial), the onus lies on the advertisers to honour it as a self policing model and not under legislative purview. This has become more problematic recently when Google has unified its privacy policy for all its online products. The standard privacy policies are cloaked in legalese.

Open source alternatives like Firefox are stripped out of malicious content since the code base is for anyone to inspect. Further, because of unrestricted ability to be able to modify and tweak the browser, Firefox has an extensible system that is light years ahead of its competition. Although, it is possible to see what Chrome does to your system, the technical intricacies are beyond the purview of ordinary users. Internet Explorer is a bloated and aged browser (despite Microsofts claims to contrary) and this reviewer strongly dissuades the readers to avoid using it for anything, except downloading a better browser (that is, Firefox or Opera) on any fresh install. Not to mention the cross platform availability of Firefox.

This reviewer has Linux Mint installed and been able to turn off Java script using No Script extension with specific sites white listed to run it. Apart from this, Ad-Block Plus with host of filter lists (Easy Privacy and Fanboy Ultimate), https browsing turned on by default, Ghostery, blocking http referrer and changing the default user agent are some of the steps taken to prevent browser finger printing. Advanced users may run proxy servers with specific rules and firewalls to block unwanted traffic. This reviewer was frustrated with lack of fine tuning the options on Chromium (the open source alternative to Chrome) on Linux and by heavy usage of system resources. Opera (12.10) was another contender but tweaking Firefox was this reviewers delight.

Firefox, as a cross platform browser and on mobile (for Android) is highly recommended. Internet privacy comes at a little cost for getting to know your system and a little trade off for ease of use goes a long way to protect yourself.

The writer is a practicing doctor with keen interest in technology