Websites want to control your computer. It might be using your web cam for video chats, your microphone for voice commands or your location in order to get the weather for your area, but to do they need access to your machine’s settings. Over time, it’s likely that you’ve handed away a lot of control.
Much like apps on your phone, websites have to ask for your permission to use these settings. But after years of using your web browser without clearing your data, you could be giving permission to dozens of websites to access your settings. Take a look at what permissions you’ve given to check that you are comfortable with what websites are allowed to do with your computer, says David Emm principal security researcher cybersecurity company Kaspersky. “It’s a good idea to go to the settings and look at the ones that particularly relate to tracking,” he says.
Cookies are the most common form of online tracking. They aren’t inherently malicious – they are used to carry information about your interaction with websites, for example keeping you logged in, remembering your preferences and to understand how you are using the site. Disabling all cookies may limit your ability to use a website, but you may want to limit how much you are tracked on a browser in order to limit the amount of data collected about you.
Since the implementation of GDPR, in May 2018, most websites will ask you before using cookies that will allow personalisation of ads. In your browser settings you are able to make it so that you automatically don’t allow these information collecting tools called third party cookies.
But there are other ways websites can make change to your computer. It’s important to keep an eye on whether a website is asking to use a setting that is unrelated to what you are trying to do – for example if you’re trying to check a news report but the website is asking for access to your microphone, it may be trying to do so for more nefarious purposes. “The key thing is always just to keep focused on who’s asking and what’s the purpose and that really links back to why are you there,” says Emm.
Google may have a bit of an image problem when it comes to privacy – as an advertising giant it’s in its best interests to track you in order to show you personalised ads. However you can still use its settings to restrict websites from tracking you. In Chrome, go to settings by clicking the three dots in the top right hand corner. Find the ‘Privacy and Security’ section and click on ‘site settings’. To manually block cookies, go to ‘cookies and site data’ – here you can choose to block just third-party cookies by turning on ‘block third-party cookies’ or block all cookies by turning off ‘allow sites to save and read cookie data’.
In the ‘site settings’ section you will also be able to find the settings for the location, camera and microphone, which will all automatically be set to ‘ask before accessing’. Click the toggle to block websites to use these – if you’ve been using Chrome for a few years, the list is probably pretty long. You can also control which websites are allowed to send you notifications, turning off ‘sites can ask to send notifications’ so you’ll no longer get those pop-ups asking you every time. You can add sites to the list of those either blocked or allowed to send you notifications.
Head to the hamburger menu in the top right corner of your Firefox and click on options. On the left, the fourth section down ‘privacy & security’ is where you will find all the options to cut down what permissions websites have. Firefox automatically has tracking protection – it blocks trackers and other malicious scripts to cut down on the amount of data websites collect about your behaviour online.
However, you can choose to ramp up the level of protection from ‘standard’ to ‘strict’. Although Firefox warns that this could impact the functionality of some sites, it’s actually just blocking all first and third party cookies. There’s also a third option to customise your protection where you can choose to block cross-site and social media trackers, cookies from unvisited sites, all third-party cookies or all cookies.
Additionally you can get Firefox to send websites a ‘do not track’ signal. The setting is voluntary for websites to honour – and most do not – but it adds an extra indication that you’re opposed to too much tracking. If you scroll down in the same settings page, you’ll find the ‘permissions’ section, which will give you options for blocking access to your location, camera and microphone. Click on settings for each and you’ll be able to see which websites have requested to access. If you don’t want a website to have these permissions, simply remove it from the list. At the bottom of the pop-up window, you can tick ‘block new requests asking to access your location’.
To stop websites accessing your location, camera and microphone you need to visit the ‘websites’ section of Safari’s preferences. To get here you need to navigate to the top bar above your Safari browser, click the Safari menu, then select ‘preferences’. Once you have found the websites section, you can see which sites you have already given permission to. At the bottom of the box, there is an option box for ‘when visiting other websites’ – set this to deny to automatically block them from accessing these settings.
Under ‘privacy’ you can tick the box ‘prevent cross-site tracking’ and tick ‘ask websites not to track me’. This will send a message to websites, but it’s up to the website creator whether they choose to follow your request not to be tracked. As with all browsers, the do not track setting is largely redundant. Blocking cookies is just below this – untick the box to block all cookies.
Go to the three dots in the top right corner of Microsoft Edge and click on ‘settings’, three options from the bottom. ‘Privacy and settings’ is the second option on the left. Here you have three options – ‘basic’ will allow most trackers, so websites can collect data about you and personalise ads, but blocks known harmful trackers. Microsoft Edge automatically sets your tracking prevention to ‘balanced’ which blocks more trackers but sites still work as expected. Choosing the ‘strict’ option will mean you have the least personalised content and ads. In this section you can also choose exceptions to these rules and if you scroll down, you can ask the browser to send ‘do not track’ requests.
To manually block cookies you need to go to the ‘site permissions’ section on the left. Here you can switch on the toggle to block third-party cookies or turn off ‘allow sites to save and read cookie data’ to block all cookies. On the site permissions page you can also choose whether to let websites ask to access your camera, microphone, motion and light sensors, and location – if you don’t then the sites will be blocked from accessing these settings entirely.
Maria Mellor is a writer for WIRED. She tweets from @Maria_mellor
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