Browsers and Firewalls

Your PC is up to date, your anti-virus is current and your firewall is turned on. Now we turn our attention to the Internet a little more. This time with how you access the Internet yourself. We’ve safeguarded your PC regarding how it accesses the Internet, but now we come to you, and how you interact with the Internet.

There are several areas to cover in this portion on learning how to stay safe in a connected world. The first is your browser. “Browser” is the term given to the program you open to gain access to World Wide Web. Examples include:

  • Internet Explorer, identified on your desktop by a blue E, generally with a yellow swipe through it
  • Firefox, identified by a red fox wrapped around the earth.
  • Opera, identified by a big red O on your desktop.
  • Chrome, whose desktop icon reminds this author of the old game, Simon Says
  • Safari, whose icon is reminiscent of a boating compass.

While each of these browsers will have some appeal to various readers, Internet Explorer is often the default browser for the average user sheerly due to never having heard of other browsers before, often unaware they are even using a browser. Generally, when you ask how they get online, such users tell you they click on the Internet. This misnomer is rampant among non-technical PC users. The Internet can be accessed by any of these programs listed above, plus many more both on the PC and on other devices such as your phone, tablet, gaming device, etc.

It is important to pay attention to how your browser manages temporary files(or cache as its sometimes called), cookies(pieces of text that track you online or store login information), plug-in’s(bits of programming that make browsing more enjoyable), etc. We’ve already discussed how to get rid of temporary files and cookies, but we haven’t yet discussed how to deal with plug-ins.

Plugins/add-ons/extensions/modules, regardless of name, are programs written to enhance your browsing experience. Some let you surf Facebook while you check your webmail. Others tell you what the weather is doing around the world, or what the stock market is doing at that very second. But not every plugin is benevolent! Not every browser handles them the same way either.

The most attacked browser is Microsoft ‘s Internet Explorer, present on every PC that runs the Windows OS. Internet Explorer, or IE for short, by default allows third-party plugins to install into your browser, allowing the Google toolbar, and others to display at the top of your browser as you surf. Unfortunately, the feature in IE that lets beneficial code install itself, has been used for years by cyber criminals to install malware, allowing them to wreak various levels of havoc on your system.

Due to how prevalent IE remains, in spite of growing popularity of safer browsers such as Firefox, Google Chrome, or Opera, IE continues its reign as the most attacked browser partly due to this 3rd party feature. You can reduce the threat of malware in IE, by turning off 3rd party extensions in IE’s Internet Options Advanced tab. This is best done by those who know what they are doing, otherwise you can disable things resulting in IE not working quite right.

Another attack vector is ActiveX, a proprietary way of making web pages more engaging. The user is usually asked to install the plugin before they can use the site. Some sites will prompt to install malicious activeX code, infecting the person’s PC through their browser. It is thoroughly possible, if a person has set the low security level in Internet Options, to end up with malicious code installed without their knowledge. Drive-by installations as some in the tech industry call them, occur because of either low security settings, or 3rd party extensions enabled. Ensuring security is set to medium-high or high, and disabling 3rd party extensions will go a long way to reducing the chances of malicious code installing itself in Internet Explorer.

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