Safe Internet Browsing
Article by Rick Leinecker, April 3, 2006

Browsing the Internet, like walking along the beach, is safe if you avoid the hazards. While Internet browsing doesn't have gooey jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-wars, and broken glass, it presents its own set of potential dangers. This article gives you some advice to make your experience safer, and thus more enjoyable.

Several weeks ago we talked about Spyware popups. Even if you're completely free of Spyware you can get popups while surfing the Internet. That's because a single line of code added in the HTML (the underlying web page code) can cause a popup to appear. For example, Weather.com creates a popup when you first visit that contains advertisements. While these popups aren't harmful, they can be annoying.

Browser popups can be blocked if you know the right browser settings. For Internet Explorer, open the Tools menu. There, you'll find a selection to turn popup blocking on or off. There's even a selection that lets you fine tune the popup blocker settings.

For Firefox, open the Tools menu. There, you'll find an options dialog. Click on the Content button and you'll see all of the popup blocker controls.

If you do get a popup, you may not recognize it as such. Many of the popup ads today are cleverly disguised as system alerts. They look just like the message boxes that a Windows system brings up, and they say things such as "your computer is infected, click here". In these cases, users think they're getting a message from their own computer when in reality it's just a counterfeit perpetrated by a smart web designer. When the hapless user clicks in response, they're brought to the advertiser's web site.

Many web pages ask you to change your home page to their main page. Here again, the message boxes that appear look more official than normal web pages so users are often fooled into agreeing to the home page change. Changing your home page isn't detrimental to your system, but may be annoying when you run your browser again and expect to be at the old familiar start page.

Cookies are often maligned as a potential security risk. Browsers even give you the option to turn cookie functionality off. But cookies serve an important purpose. First, let me explain what they are. They're small chunks of data that are saved onto your hard drive by a web page. Each cookie is associated with a specific web site, and can't be accessed by other web sites. So if yahoo.com saved a cookie, google.com could not read the yahoo.com cookie.

Cookies save all sorts of information that may be important. For instance, if a web site lets you pick a background color, the choice can be saved as a cookie. Then, the next time you visit that particular web site; it can read the cookie and make your background color match your previously-selected choice.

Advertisers have found out how to use cookies to their advantage. If you are on a web site and frequent a certain section of the web site such as the shoe sale department, this can be recorded inside of a cookie. An advertisement mechanism on the same web site can then examine the cookie to see what portions of the web site you visit most, and deliver banner ads that match your disposition. Recording information about your patterns doesn't hurt you. But it's a little spooky to think that cookies are being saved to your hard drive that record information such as web site usage that you thought would remain unnoticed.

There's a myth floating around that cookies cause you to get more popup ads. That isn't true. While it's true that cookies allow advertisers to better match their banner ads (which are embedded into the page and not in a popup window) with your habits, they don't cause more popups to appear on the screen. I had a friend who even told me that cookies cause you to get more spam in your email, which is totally bogus. It's amazing the number of untrue myths that abound!

The worst potential threat to your Internet surfing is known as an ActiveX control. These are chunks of program code that get downloaded from the Internet onto your computer. Once they run on your computer, they can do anything since they're invoked at the highest security clearance. You can't receive these without first giving permission. A web site that wants you to install an ActiveX control must display a message box asking for permission to install some software. If you say yes, then the ActiveX control gets installed. If you say no, then you won't get the program code and you're safe.

The challenge, though, is that some ActiveX controls are necessary for some web sites to work correctly. Take, for instance, Macromedia's Flash control. This allows web pages to be very interactive and contain advanced animations. Without it, Disney.com (which relies heavily on Flash technology) wouldn't be very good. My advice is this: if you know and trust the company, allow the ActiveX control to be installed. I always allow controls from Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia, TrendMicro, and several others to load. But if I don't know who the publisher is, there is absolutely no way that I'll allow it to install.

Those are the basics of safe Internet surfing.