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by Dave Moore, 9-23-18

Last week we looked at Internet tracking cookies, those little surveillance files injected into our devices by websites, used against us to report our every move to faceless data brokers, invasive government agencies, and Internet criminals.

Not only can tracking cookies be used against you for nefarious purposes, they can, if allowed to hang around, build up with other junk like temporary files and browsing histories to the point of slowing down your Internet activities. Clearing your computer of these items should be part of everyone’s regular maintenance routine.

Fortunately, tracking cookies can be stopped before they even get started by using some simple methods involving browser settings, plugins and special privacy browsers. Let’s start by looking at your browser’s settings.

Not all browsers are created equal, and not all claims by browser companies are to be believed. All browsers perform their fundamental function (letting you look at websites) quite well, but it’s how they handle things like tracking cookies that sets certain browsers apart. Google can claim that its Chrome browser “is the most secure browser in the world,” but, what does that even mean? It’s one of those specious claims that can neither be proven nor disproven.

For enhanced, easy-to-configure online privacy, forget Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer and Edge; some key privacy and tracking controls (such as the ability to automatically dump cookies at the end of each browsing session) are either buried, obscured or nonexistent in those browsers, rendering them not worth the effort.

One problem you may encounter is that many websites won’t work at all unless you allow some level of cookie activity. Some websites are even more demanding, such as my bank’s website, which won’t allow online bill paying unless third-party cookies are enabled. A compromise is to enable certain cookie functions for activities that demand them, and disable them for everything else. You can even build different browser “profiles,” each dedicated to different purposes (online shopping, bill paying, banking, gaming, general surfing, privacy, etc.) and switch between them to accomplish different goals.

For the purposes of this column, as relates to Microsoft Windows PCs and Apple Macs, we will be focusing on Mozilla’s Firefox Quantum; plugins for Firefox called Ghostery, DuckDuckGo and LightBeam, that let us discover and manage tracking cookies; “Brave,” from Brave Software Inc.; the Epic Privacy Browser; and the Firefox Focus and DuckDuckGo browsers for Apple and Android phones and tablets. Column space does not allow me to fully explain each and every setting and function, so I’ll simply tell you what my preferences are, and you can research them on your own.

If you have the latest version of Firefox installed, then you already have Firefox Quantum. If you’re not sure, click Help/About Firefox and you’ll know. You can also update Firefox from the same screen. Firefox has a number of built-in tools to enhance security, privacy and block tracking cookies, starting with Tools/Options.

In the General section (on the right), make Firefox the default browser. Scroll to the bottom, select Network Proxy Settings/No Proxy. In the Home section, Homepage, pick Custom URLs. In the Paste a URL box, type a web address to someplace that doesn’t try to track you, such as duckduckgo.com. Under New Tabs, select Blank Page.

Searching in the Address Bar is hazardous for many uninitiated privacy seekers, so, in the Search section, select Add search bar in toolbar, instead. Under Default Search Engine, select DuckDuckGo. Uncheck all Search Suggestions. Under One-Click Search Engines, remove all except DuckDuckGo. Sometimes, Firefox updates will change these choices. To prevent that, go back to the General section/Allow Firefox To and uncheck Automatically update search engines.

In the Privacy & Security section, uncheck Ask to save logins. Uncheck autofill addresses. Under History, select Firefox will use custom settings. In this same section, check Remember browsing and download history, and check Clear history when Firefox closes. Leave the others in the middle unchecked, but on the right side, pick Clear history Settings; check everything here. You should experiment with the History settings, particularly the Use private browsing mode setting, and see if you get different results for different websites.

Under Cookies and Site Data, select Accept cookies and site data, Keep until Firefox is closed, and Accept third-party cookies always. You should experiment with these settings, also. Even though you are dumping all cookies when Firefox closes, it would be better not to accept them in the first place, especially third-party cookies. However, as mentioned above with my banks’ website, some sites won’t work at all unless you allow certain cookie scenarios. At least you are getting rid of them at the end of each session.

In the Address Bar section, uncheck everything. Under Tracking Protection, select Always for both options. Under Permissions, select Block pop-ups, Warn you, and Prevent accessibility (unless you need it). Uncheck everything in Firefox Data Collection. Leave everything else alone.

That takes care of Firefox Quantum for Windows and MacOS. Next episode, Fight the Internet tracking cookies and win, Part 2, we will look at privacy browsers and protections for phones and tablets.

Dave Moore has been fixing computers in Oklahoma since 1984. As founder of the Internet Safety Group, he also teaches Internet safety workshops for public and private organizations. He can be reached at 405-919-9901 or www.internetsafetygroup.com