A few days ago, a friend asked me about computer security and privacy. He wanted to learn how to be safe online and be up-to-date with the different kinds of risks that exist on the internet. Also, he doesn’t have a background related to technology.
I must admit that I blanked. That request is very logical and pertinent in our current world, but how do I answer it? I have spent the best part of the past six years learning about computers and don’t feel even remotely close to provide a comprehensive response. And in terms of security and privacy it is not only a matter of technical knowledge, but also about understanding the social aspects of the dangers and building safety habits.
Don’t get me wrong, anyone can learn about it, but it takes time (less with proper educational materials from someone more competent than me).
However, the same way you don’t need to study medicine to know about basic hygiene that protects you from infections, there are some actions that have direct positive impact in your online life without the need of prior knowledge. That I’m able to answer!
So I ended up sharing with my friend my Holy Trinity of browser plugins. These are three simple browser extensions that I immediately install in every web browser I use. The three of them work with most desktop web browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Opera. However, at this moment the only way I know to easily use them in Android is installing the Firefox app for Android.
Modern webpages are crowded with trackers to show you ads. These little snitches gather information about what you click, your location, your devices… All of which is used to uniquely identify you across the internet and categorize your interests, mostly to sell you stuff (but not only).
The privacy implications of the ad industry are serious enough, but its effects extend to worse performance of sites and significant increases in the bandwidth used to load them. Both of these issues are specially relevant on mobile devices, where internet connection is unreliable and limited.
uBlock Origin is the best ad/tracker blocker out there. Not only it is extremely efficient, but it also is a solid open-source project built on extensive voluntary work, so it doesn’t sell companies the right to skip the filter, like AdBlock Plus and others do.
Install it on:
When you navigate to a webpage, your browser connects to it using either HTTP or HTTPS, the latter being like the former but Secure. If you use HTTPS, only you and the webpage know what you are sending and receiving; otherwise, you are broadcasting openly your communication to the internet, including every password, credit card and similar that you introduce. Also, you can’t know for sure if what you receive is what was originally intended or someone tampered it in the way.
By now, all webpages should be running exclusively on HTTPS, but, either because of ignorance or incompetence, we are not quite there yet. That is why HTTPS Everywhere shows a big scary warning when you try to navigate to a site that doesn’t accept a secure connection. When this happens it is still possible to accept the risk and continue, but now you know that you should NEVER introduce sensitive information in that site (also, beware of what you download from it).
Install it on:
Nowadays most people who use the internet have accounts in several sites, sometimes even dozens. Still, many don’t know or care about the most important rule of safety:
Use a long, complex and unique password for every account you own.
This is not even a piece of advice; it is a critical self-preservation measure. When you use a single password across all your accounts, you are one mistake away from identity theft, with all its nasty consequences. And this mistake may be that one of the webpages you use suffers a security breach, which is very much out of your control.
That is why you need to use a password manager. A password manager creates random passwords for each site and remembers them, so you don’t have to. This way, the only password you need to memorize is the one that opens the manager, which you’ll ensure is strong enough for the duty. Take a look at this article about creating a safe and easy to remember passphrase.
There are multiple password managers out there, including the ones integrated in modern web browsers, but I personally use Bitwarden. Its basic plan is free and upgrading to a paid version won’t harm your pocket either; it is backed on the cloud, but you can make a local backup for redundancy; and it is available both as web browser plugin and smartphone app, so you can access your passwords from all your devices.
Install it on:
It is my humble opinion that using these three amazing plugins will make you a happier, safer human. Of course, this doesn’t protect you from the darkest forces of evil, but the benefits are huge compared with the minimal effort it takes.
From here, you should spend some time learning about more proactive approaches to security, like being alert about phishing and malicious URLs. I can assure you that at some point you will find this knowledge useful.
Be safe out there!