Internet Browsers, Key to Security?
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Less like the key, really, than a car - browsers provide the means for traveling around the
Internet to interesting destinations. Unfortunately, sometimes uninvited passengers climb
in. On rare occasions, they even 'carjack' you.
So, what to do?
Users have options, starting with browser selection. Internet Explorer still has over 90% of
the 'market' (an odd term for free software), but it's popularity is waning slightly. Firefox
and others have inherently better security and the added advantage of running on Linux.
Even when not inherently better, other browsers and operating systems are less popular
targets. Until both legislators and software vendors get really serious about security, it's
possible to reduce your 'target area' by staying out of the limelight.
Education is another key to 'hardening' browser security.
There are dozens of options in Internet Explorer and other browsers that control what
components triggered during surfing are allowed to do. Very few users have much
knowledge about what they're for or the effects of setting them one way versus another.
For example, is it desirable to 'Allow ActiveX controls and plug-ins' to Run, or should that
be set to Prompt? Individual judgments here, as in all aspects of security in life, have to
be made. One factor is your tolerance for responding to prompts versus your willingness
to risk infection. After all, you have to decide whom to let in your car, don't you?
It's an undesirable trade-off to be faced with, and one which we can hope someday won't
be necessary. But in the interim, it isn't necessary to be a computer geek to experiment
and read a bit to find out what these settings affect. The first time you're infected and lose
a day recovering, you'll wish you'd spent the two hours finding out.
Proper use is the final leg of browser security. Do you practice 'safe browsing'? Some
sites prompt to download ActiveX controls (little programs), dialers, adware and other
dynamic content. Do you really know what's likely to happen when you say yes, or are
you trusting the source? Trust is necessary, but as the old saying goes 'Trust, but keep
your eyes open'.
Most users are unaware of the extent to which using a browser opens up their system to
the rest of the world. Being on the Internet means not just seeing, but being visible. And
accessing sites usually means being accessible. It isn't just harmless cookies that can be
downloaded to your system. Once executable programs are downloaded they often have
free rein to your entire system.
Back to education for a moment. Spend some time learning how to lock down your
system, outside the browser settings, to make it more difficult for these errant programs
to gain Administrator level privileges. Your time will be well re-paid.
So, be aware of what's happening when you navigate to a site. Download only from
trusted sources. It's ok to be slightly suspicious of strangers. Don't pick up hitchhikers.
Ok, Mom's going to make some hot chocolate now. Then we'll decide if you can have the
keys to the car.
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