Six browser plug-ins that protect your privacy

Want to avoid ads and keep your Web wanderings private? One of these six browser apps could do the trick.

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Ghostery

Price: Free; supported by optional "donation" of tracked data

Compatible with: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari

Ghosts can't be seen, and Ghostery aims to lend you that kind of invisibility when you venture onto the Web, drawing on what the developers claim to be the Web's largest tracker database. It costs nothing, not even a donation, but Ghostery does engage in some optional, anonymous data-mining: Its opt-in Ghostrank feature collects data about the browser you use, sites you visit, trackers you've encountered, etc.

Ghostery Rick Broida
Ghostery displays a numerical blocked-items counter in its toolbar icon, a click of which reveals a scrolling list of trackers.

What it does: Right out of the box, Ghostery blocks tracking cookies and scripts. Within its settings, however, you'll find a number of additional blocking options: advertising, analytics, beacons, privacy and widgets. Within those categories, you can opt to block some, all or none of what Ghostery finds.

How it performed: Ghostery makes a good first impression with a helpful tutorial that appears the first time you click its toolbar icon. The second impression? Less good: By default, an ugly purple box appears as it identifies trackers on each site you visit. You can turn this off, but it's an unwelcome, unnecessary distraction that shouldn't be on to begin with.

Like most of the other blockers, Ghostery displays a numerical blocked-items counter in its toolbar icon, a click of which reveals the plug-in's full menu. That menu consists of a scrolling list of trackers, each with a brief description of what it is (advertising, analytics, etc.) and an on/off toggle. This makes for very easy customization for any given site and helps you learn how different elements can affect what you're seeing.

For example, if you know a particular site uses Livefyre for its comment system, and you suddenly find the comment window has disappeared, it's a simple matter to toggle off the Livefyre blocking from within Ghostery's drop-down menu.

On the other hand, this kind of granular approach makes Ghostery feel less automated than other tools, as it almost forces you to study and customize the various kinds of blockers. Indeed, after I'd enabled ad blocking, I found that YouTube videos played without commercials (bonus!), but Vevo music videos wouldn't play at all. To figure out a workaround took some toggle trial-and-error.

Bottom line: Assuming you can get past the irony of a privacy-minded plug-in that supports itself by collecting usage data, Ghostery offers robust blocking capabilities -- but definitely requires some learning and customization.

Privacy Badger

Price: Free; accepts user contributions

Compatible with: Chrome, Firefox

A project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Privacy Badger is arguably the most altruistic ad- and tracker-blocker you can get. The very goal of the EFF is to "defend civil liberties in the digital world" -- in this case, by preventing advertisers and others from tracking your Web movements.

Privacy Badger Rick Broida
Privacy Badger aims to keep things simple -- the tool's settings consist mainly of a three-position slider for each tracker it detects.

What it does: Based on Adblock Plus code (but with a very different implementation, and limited to just Chrome and Firefox), Privacy Badger screens out the usual suspects: ads, third-party images, scripts and all manner of trackers.

How it performed: In a word: mediocre. Privacy Badger didn’t block banner ads at sites like Facebook and YouTube, while the ads it blocked elsewhere were represented by ugly gray boxes with pixelated sad-face icons in the center. It did strip the commercials from YouTube videos, but not those on Hulu.

From a usability standpoint, Privacy Badger aims to keep things simple -- with mixed results. There are no global settings (other than enable/disable), the idea being that users shouldn't have to monkey with customization. That's a nice change from, say, Ghostery, but perhaps it goes too far. Indeed, the tool offers no settings or controls whatsoever other than a three-position slider for each tracker it detects.

Those positions are red, yellow and green, which stand for "block a domain," "block cookies" and "allow a domain," respectively. For each site you visit and each tracker detected, Privacy Badger sets each switch as it deems logical. But how do you know if you should change, say, "apis.google.com" from yellow to red? And why does a site like TMZ show so many trackers set to green?

Thankfully, it's not necessary to make changes unless you run into some kind of obstacle, like a comment system not working properly. But for novice and even some tech-savvy users, Privacy Badger sometimes raises more questions than it answers.

Bottom line: Limited compatibility and customization options hamper a tool that's simply not as effective as other blockers, and therefore hard to recommend.

Conclusion

Is there one ad-blocker or privacy protector that really stands out from the rest? Not really.

If you're already using one of these products (or something similar), there's probably not much incentive to switch. Indeed, I've been running AdBlock for the past couple years, and while I found myself impressed with Disconnect's aesthetics, ultimately I decided to stay with AdBlock.

Internet Explorer users have just two options, Adblock Plus and Ghostery, and to all but the most tech-savvy users I recommend the former. For everyone else, AdBlock and Disconnect do a superb job blocking ads and protecting your privacy.

One reminder, however, as for the ads -- remember: Someone has to pay for great content like this.

This story, "Six browser plug-ins that protect your privacy" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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