One of the things that you'll most often be doing on the Internet is using your web browser of choice to explore and navigate the World Wide Web. Not surprisingly, this is where a lot of Internet security threats can pop up. Computer programs can track where you go on the Web, usually just to show you advertisements for things you might like, but sometimes for more sinister purposes. And clicking on the wrong hyperlink, visiting the wrong webpage, or downloading the wrong file can spell trouble for you in the form of viruses and spyware.
Fear not, though! Many of these threats can be avoided through common sense, or with tools that are easily available over the Internet or right on your web browser itself. Here are some of our top recommendations for general precautions to take in order to surf the World Wide Web safely.
1. Learn how to browse privately.
Most popular web browsers today have the ability to let you enter a special private session. It's called different things depending on which browser you're using; Google Chrome calls it "Incognito Mode", Microsoft Internet Explorer calls it "InPrivate Browsing", and Mozilla Firefox just calls it "Private Browsing". They all work in pretty much the same way, though: they allow you to browse the World Wide Web without leaving a record of what you do on your browser or computer.
This means that things such as records of websites and pages that you've visited, records of terms you've entered into search engines or other input boxes, records of files you've downloaded (but not the files themselves), and cookies (small files that websites put on your computer in order to "remember" you) will all automatically be deleted when you close all private windows in your web browser. This is an especially important skill when using public computers, as you don't want a stranger snooping on what you've been doing on the World Wide Web.
Remember though, these private options delete records of what you've been doing on the World Wide Web from your side only. They unfortunately do not stop websites, network administrators, your Internet provider, or any curious onlooker from seeing where you're going on the World Wide Web. Fortunately, there are ways to get around this with certain antivirus software, or other browser features and add-ons (as we'll explain below).
2. Take advantage of your browser's security features.
Many modern browsers have built-in security features that help alert you to common security threats. For instance, they will display a lock icon in the web address bar if the website you are on can verify itself as secure; you can click this lock to see more about the website's security credentials.
In addition, most popular browsers will warn you if you are about to go to a website where it is known that there are downloadable files that contain viruses or spyware, or that there are other functions that allow cyber-criminals to manipulate and/or damage your computer. Some browsers will be able to tell this just from looking at the website's address.
It is important to occasionally check for updates to your browser of choice (or, better yet, enable automatic updating) to make sure that these security features are in tip-top shape. Also be aware that your browser's security features may not catch every threat you encounter, so have good antivirus software installed as well.
3. Install add-ons that can steer you away from threats.
You can put extra features on your web browser that can help to deal with certain problematic elements on the World Wide Web. For instance, many web browsers come with — or allow you to install — a system that prevents pop-up windows from activating (though you can override this if you know a pop-up window is safe). Pop-up advertisements, besides being annoying, are a prime way for cybercriminals to slow down people's computers or trick them into downloading viruses or spyware.
Other add-ons work to block tracking programs on the Internet from monitoring what you do, so (for example) you don't see certain advertisements that are eerily tailored based on places you've been on the World Wide Web. There are many options for most popular browsers to customize them for greater security and performance; ask someone whom you trust who knows a lot about computers to pick the ones that are right for you.
4. Know how to download with care.
As we've said, downloading infected files is one of the prime ways that viruses and spyware find their way onto your computer. However, not every file downloadable from the Internet is a bad apple. There are a few ways to stay safe when downloading files from the Internet.
Make sure your computer itself is protected with antivirus software and other security features, which may be able to block malware if you accidentally do end up downloading it.
Use your browser's built-in or added-on security features (as described in tips #2 and #3), as well as our tips for how to spot phishing scams and other phony websites (as outlined in our How to be Safe on the Internet, Phishing Scams, and Advance-Fee-Fraud articles), to make sure that the website you're downloading from is trusted and secure.
If given the chance, choose to save a file that you're downloading instead of opening it right away. This gives you the chance to use your antivirus software to scan it and make sure that it's safe.
Be wary of downloading files from peer-to-peer (P2P) websites or software. Not only do many of these files hide viruses and spyware, but many of them are also illegal because they break copyright laws.
5. Cover your tracks on the World Wide Web once in a while.
Sometimes, it's helpful to keep a record of where you've been and what you've done on the Internet. For example:
Your browsing history can help you remember a website that you found but forgot about.
Your search history can help you quickly perform a new search for something you were looking for previously.
Cookies and form entry history can help you remember the preferences and information you've specified for websites (which can allow you to navigate them faster).
However, all of this information can be used by others to track your Internet browsing habits. Mostly, it's used by websites to serve you specific advertisements based on what they think you like, but malicious Internet users may actively try to follow you and even manipulate what you do on the Internet (though this is rare).
It is for this reason that it's occasionally a good idea to clear your web browsing history. Most popular web browsers will have an option in the "History" or "Setting/Preferences" section that will allow you to delete your browsing data. In addition to helping keep you from being tracked on the Internet, this frees up computer memory, so your computer or Internet connection may run a little bit faster.
Great! Now you know some general precautions to take when using your web browser to surf the World Wide Web. The other tutorials in this section will give you some specific pointers on how to do specific activities safely on the Internet, such as dating, shopping, and using social media.