At this moment, you might be the only person physically using your computer. You might even be the only person currently in the room. However, if you aren’t taking steps to remain anonymous on the internet, then you aren’t browsing alone. Every time you go online you leave a trail of information that is visible to more third parties than you might think. And clearing your browser’s history won’t do anything about it.
These days we can’t go a week without news of overreaching governments trying to monitor and control their citizens on the internet. But governments aren’t the only ones trying to get a look at your traffic. There are several other lower-profile entities that could also be collecting your identifying information without you knowing. These include your internet provider; search engines; individual websites; social networks; local network administrators; apps; your operating system; and everyone’s favorite internet villain, hackers.
In this article, you’ll find browser extensions to help you keep an eye on your privacy, surf anonymously, prevent unwanted access to your data, block unwanted ads, and easily maintain a variety of complex passwords for each of your accounts.
What is a browser extension?
Before introducing the extensions themselves, it’s important to understand what an extension is. A browser extension is an application that attaches to your browser (Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari, etc.) to augment its operation. The standard out-of-the-box functions are limited for the average user because most people want a straightforward tool to access the web. However, like your smartphone, a browser can be made better with the right third-party apps. While browsers continue to make advancements in protecting your privacy and security, they can’t match the features of dedicated apps. These apps include virtual private networks (VPNs), ad blockers, and password managers.
VPN extensions for secure and private browsing
Virtual private networks have been around for a long time, but until relatively recently they were the realm of IT professionals. Governments and business used them to provide employees with secure access from remote locations, but now almost anyone can use one. A VPN works by redirecting your traffic through a separate private network on the way to its final destination. The VPN replaces the user’s information with its own, so even the final website doesn’t know where the original traffic came from. There are three principal benefits to VPNs:
- Anonymity: Every website reads and often stores the IP data of its users. This data contains information about your computer and network connection, and can be personally identifiable. As mentioned above, a VPN adds an intermediate step to your data’s journey. Therefore, the target website can only see the IP information of the remote network, not yours.
- Secure Navigation: In addition to anonymizing your data, VPN networks are well encrypted. This makes the data itself extremely hard, sometimes impossible to read by unauthorized third parties. This is especially useful when connecting to unsecured public Wi-Fi networks such as those in cafes, libraries, etc.
- Unblocked Content: The internet is the greatest advancement in making the world a smaller and better connected place for humanity. It is full of rich, diverse content from all over the globe. Unfortunately, we often find that certain content is not accessible outside a certain geographical area. Or worse, that content is blocked in specific countries. It is common for YouTube and Netflix users to find themselves faced with a message stating that a popular video is not available in their country. VPNs allow you to circumvent such geolocks by directing your traffic through a server in the video’s host county.
VPNs are most often available as stand-alone applications, but two of our favorites include intuitive browser extensions for easy access to their features.
ExpressVPN browser extension for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari
ExpressVPN is a popular VPN service, and one that earns top marks in our in-house reviews. Like all premium VPNs, ExpressVPN requires a subscription, though you certainly get what you pay for. After installing the application on your computer, the extension gives you direct access to settings and features directly from within your browser of choice. This allows you to change VPN servers to match your target web page without clicking out of the browser. ExpressVPN boasts a network of more than 2000 servers in 94 countries, so you won’t have any problems finding one that suits your needs. Like the app itself, the extension is uncluttered and easy to use.
NordVPN browser extension for Chrome and Firefox
NordVPN is another VPN service with a well-designed browser extension option. Though it is a less expensive alternative, it is still very much a premium service. It has a network of almost 4,500 servers, spread out over more than 60 countries. If security is a top priority, NordVPN’s 2048-bit SSL encryption, and support for all major VPN protocols make it a confidence inspiring choice. It might not be as fast or reach as many countries as ExpressVPN, but you would be hard pressed to find anything better at this price point.
A note on Hola VPN for Chrome
Hola is a very popular VPN extension from the Chrome browser. It is easy to use, fast, and has a free version! Sounds perfect, right? Well, not really. Unlike premium VPN options, Hola is unencrypted, has no customer service, and does not readily support Netflix or torrents. Additionally, while services such as NordVPN and ExpressVPN keep no traffic logs, Hola does. This means that your date is stored and your traffic is traceable back to you. Even worse, Hola is a peer-to-peer VPN network. They don’t maintain their own network of servers. Instead they piggy-back on the bandwidth of their users. This means that paid users connect through the IP addresses of non-paid users. Hola claims that this method is secure, but the more we read about the Hola extension, the more we don’t trust it. Our advice is to stay clear.
Ad Blockers for eliminating unwanted ads and scripts
One of the best ways you can protect yourself online is with an ad blocking extension. Like the name implies, these extensions block ads and other unwanted scripts from running on the current page. Ads can be annoying, especially the pop-up kind, but much of the time they are harmless to the end user. However, there are ads out there that either contain malware themselves, or redirect to pages that do. Furthermore, some ads can contain offensive content and NSFW imagery that, even if unrelated to the actual content of the page, could make for an unpleasant and awkward situation if you’re in public. Ad blockers help give you better control over your online experience, and we highly recommend them for websites you’re not familiar with.
The most popular ad blocker on the market is AdBlock Plus. It is a free extension available on every major browser (Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari, and Opera) and a few minor ones as well (Yandex, Maxthon, Chromium). A freshly installed extension will block most ads with its default list. It allows you to import other lists or to create your own. You also have the option to enable or disable blocking on a specific page. We’ll tell you why this is important further down.
One major drawback of AdBlock Plus is their “Acceptable Ads” initiative. One of the primary ways AdBlock Plus makes money is by allowing companies to pay to let their ads through. Therefore, even though you are using an “Ad Blocker” you can still be served ads if a company pays enough. For us, this completely defeats the purpose, and we recommend seeking an alternative like uBlock Origin.
uBlock Origin works with all the major browsers, uses fewer system resources than AdBlock Plus, and, most importantly, doesn’t accept payment to serve you ads. It comes with a comprehensive default blocking list and a tool for blocking page elements on the fly. All you have to do is right click on an image or field and choose “Block Element”. This brings up a text box filled with the URL of the element. Click “Create” to add the element to the blocking list and it will immediately disappear. uBlock origin is customizable as well, allowing you to whitelist trusted pages.
Support your favorite websites by whitelisting them
It’s important to recognize that blocking ads directly affects the revenue of the sites you visit. Most websites are free to use because the creators can sell ad space. If advertising income isn’t enough to keep the site running, the site could require a paid membership, or even disappear entirely. If you trust a website, and their ads aren’t too intrusive, consider supporting them by adding the URL to your whitelist.
Password manager browser extensions
The most important step in taking control of your online privacy and security is adequately diversifying your usernames and passwords. Many of us have several online accounts for things like banking, social networks, message boards, email etc. Ideally, you should have a different username and password for each one. However, it’s in our nature to want to keep things as simple as possible, and memorizing 15 different username/password combinations is difficult. The majority of people use the same username for many if not most of their accounts. The problem here should be obvious. If one account becomes compromised, the rest in turn are also compromised. It would be a major hassle to have your bank account information stolen because hackers obtained user data from an old message board you don’t even use anymore.
So what are your options? Remembering all those passwords is hard, and you don’t want to write them all down on a piece of paper that could be lost or stolen. Well, that’s what a password manager is for. A password manager encrypts and stores your passwords in one central location, so instead of remembering dozens, you only have to remember one.
LastPass password manager for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, and Opera
LastPass is a popular password manager that secures all your password under one master passphrase. It allows you to maintain a vault of long and complex passwords for all your accounts without having to rely on your memory. LastPass boasts robust AES-256 bit local-only encryption that keeps your data hidden from everyone but you. Your master password and encryption keys are kept on your device and never sent to LastPass’ servers.
LastPass’ most basic functions are available for free. The company also offers a variety of premium tiers that deliver features like multi-factor authentication, priority tech support, encrypted file storage, multiple licenses, shared folders, and a host of business-specific functions.
Dashlane password manager for Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, and Opera
Dashlane is a password manager option that boasts “Military Grade Encryption,” though it appears to be the same AES-256 bit encryption employed by LastPass. The Dashlane software also maintains your encryption keys and master password locally on your device, so even they don’t have access to them.
Dashlane allows you to manage upto 50 passwords on one device for free. With a premium plan, you’re allowed unlimited devices, secure file storage, remote account access, stronger two-factor authentication, and more. Dashlane also monitors the “dark web” for lists of leaked and stolen account info and sends you an alert if your info comes up.
What do you use?
These are our recommended extensions for staying secure online, now what about you? Do you use a privacy or security-related extension that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below.