First Amendment Friday: Protect your rights online with privacy-focused browser extensions


The Adblock Plus browser extension. Cybersecurity browser extensions similar to Adblock protect user privacy when browsing the internet.

by Rose Guan, Winged Post Copy Editor

Companies whose websites we visit every day aggregate the information you give them by using their online services—your name, birthday, address and most visited websites, for example—and then provide that information to third parties without your control or knowledge.

These organizations’ goals can range from the innocent, such as compiling user statistics, to the less so, like tailoring content to convince you to buy merchandise or provide even more information.

But you can install privacy-focused browser extensions to secure your web use and protect your personal privacy and rights from information traders and invaders. In addition to making your internet experience safer, many of these extensions also have the added benefit of making it faster and smoother.

Ad and script blockers prevent websites from loading online advertisements, plugins, pop-ups, scripted content and other third-party widgets. So-called wide-spectrum blockers can include the functionality of these types of blockers and are often marketed as ad blockers. Malicious advertisements can run scripts to install malware on an unsuspecting user’s computer or allow third-party trackers to freely access any sent data.

While ad blockers can lower website owners’ revenue or block unwanted elements, some advertisements can contain malware, and they can often just be annoying to encounter when browsing.

Many ad blockers’ settings can be changed to prevent overly aggressive blocking or to customize when and where they block ads. AdBlock Plus is an example of a wide-spectrum blocking extension that blocks intrusive ads and external scripts. Its behavior can be disabled or altered on a per-site basis.

As some companies have paid AdBlock Plus to allow non-intrusive ads past the blocker, alternatives include uBlock Origin, a more lightweight blocking extension with similar anti-ad functionality, and script blockers such as NoScript for Firefox and ScriptSafe and ScriptBlock for Google Chrome.

While some ad and script blockers also prevent third-party trackers from monitoring your activity, specialized tools that block trackers can also be worthwhile to install alongside an ad blocker.

Disconnect and Ghostery both block requests from advertisers, statistics analyzers and social media. Users can toggle which detected trackers are blocked and whitelist or blacklist certain pages to customize what the extensions block.

Privacy Badger takes a more learn-along-the-way approach to blocking trackers. As a user visits more websites and encounters more trackers, the extension starts to block them or their cookies if it senses that they are spying on the viewer.

Meanwhile, HTTPS enforcers ensure the use of a secure, authenticated communication protocol on most websites. They are often compatible with other privacy-focused extensions.

HTTPS Everywhere, a Firefox, Chrome and Opera extension created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, forces encrypted connections and block unencrypted requests. Alternatives to HTTPS Everywhere with the same functionality include HTTP Nowhere for Firefox and KB SSL Enforcer for Chrome.

All of these extensions can help you prevent third-party websites and trackers from collecting your data.