Browse in the Clear

[This article originally appeared on Slaw.ca, January 21, 2015]

The Web browser has become a fundamental law practice tool. It’s what you use to get to Google’s web search, and perhaps your Web-based e-mail system, or your cloud-based practice management tool. As you travel across the Internet, you leave a trail behind you. Sometimes that’s on purpose but if you aren’t aware, you may find that the linkages marketers are making with that trail will surprise you. Use Web browser extensions to show, and block, this trail. Extensions can help you to browse and do online research with less clutter.

In Cognito Isn’t In Visible

The first thing to know is that private browsing isn’t entirely. When you create an InPrivate window in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, a Private window in Mozilla’s Firefox, or an Incognito window in Google’s Chrome, it suggests a private experience. It is, to the extent that it doesn’t leave the normal traces on your device.

Private browsing does not impact the servers you visit, however. Youtube knows someone visited even if they can’t look at the browser tracking cookie they left on your device the last time you stopped by. Someone watching network traffic from your office (like your employer) would see where you were going as well. So if you’re trying to surf privately, say, while doing litigation research, a private window won’t cut it.

What You Don’t Know

Sometimes it’s just worth it to know who is potentially tracking you. The way to monitor this is to install an extension for your Web browser. These are small software packages that work with your Web browser to do something it doesn’t do by itself. Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger and Ghostery’s eponymous extensions are a good place to start.

If you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, you’ll notice that you’re left out of options for add-ons. Most extensions are available for Mozilla’s Firefox and Google Chrome, occasionally Opera and Apple’s Safari.

I prefer Privacy Badger but Ghostery works in a similar way. When you visit a Web site that is attempting to track you, the extension will identify all of the tracking sites. It will attempt to determine which to block and which to allow. You can use sliders to enable or disable the initial choices the extension makes. For the most part, Privacy Badger gets it right for me. Occasionally I’ll find a comments section or part of a story will be missing because it has been blocked. Adjusting a slider makes it appear. It makes you realize how often a single news article or Web page is built from content coming from a dozen or more sources.

Another popular privacy extension is Disconnect. I’m not a fan of it routing my traffic through its servers to encrypt it. I prefer to use my own VPN or something like EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere to make sure my traffic is encrypted wherever possible.

You might want to look at Collusion for Chrome or Lightbeam for Firefox to visualize the tracking going on in your browser.

What You Don’t Want

These extensions use a light touch. If I’m doing research on the Web, I usually want a baseball bat as well. These have less to do with privacy than annoyances. In my case, I use Adblock Plus and Flashblock. The first blocks advertisements and the second blocks Adobe Flash-based multimedia. Adblock Plus works with most browsers. Chrome users can try FlashControl.

It’s amazing how much nicer Google search results look without ads all over the place. Adblock Plus can be tweaked to allow ads on particular pages or Web sites.

Unfortunately, two of its best features are hidden in its core. One is a loophole for non-intrusive ads. Select AdBlock’s Filter Preferences and click the Filter Selections tab. This is the list of advertising sources to block. At the bottom, uncheck Allow Some Non-Intrusive Ads.

The other is also under Filter Preferences. It allows you to filter out parts of pages that you just don’t want to see. This is a bit trickier but you can use it to clean up sites you use regularly. If you see an ad, right-click on it and select the option for Adblock Plus to block it. If it’s not an ad, and is just noisome, it’s a bit trickier. For example, I don’t like LinkedIn’s nonsensical news feed called Pulse. You can look at the source code for the Web page and add a custom filter to block it out. In the case of Pulse, it is:

linkedin.com##.linkedin-recommend-pulse

On Twitter, I use a bunch to get rid of the cruft that populates the left and right side of the messages:

##div.trends
##div.wtf-module
##.dashboard-right

Flash-blocking extensions do just what they sound like they do: block Flash animations. This reduces the likelihood that some multimedia file will start playing when you hit a Web page. You can configure it so that a play button appears, in case you want to choose to play a file.

These extensions can declutter your screen and hide links that are little more than distractions or advertising. It means I tend to avoid clicking on a link that is advertising masquerading as information.

Track Them Down

Last, but not least, some of your sites may be tracking you when you’re signed in. This won’t happen with your practice management software but it will with Google. Check your account history and see what it’s tracking. In my case, watching a Foo Fighters video meant that Google News started suggesting articles about Dave Grohl. I have a hard enough time fighting against a filter bubble without Google making it worse. I turned off all of the tracking in my Google account. And used an AdBlock Plus custom filter:

##div.section-en_us-sfy

to remove the Suggested News section from my Google News page.

Many privacy extensions are set and forget. Using them, and a bit of extra elbow grease with ad- and Flash-blocking extensions, can help you surf more privately but also with a cleaner experience.

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