Regular browsers have become the most common inroad for hackers to infiltrate your computer and steal or manipulate your data.
Traditional approaches of network or endpoint security, such as advanced firewalls or antivirus software, have not kept pace with the problem.
This is why a new generation of “secure” browsers has emerged. But not all supposedly “secure” browsers are equal, and some are not even secure.
What are the features and capabilities that make a browser secure and safe, for business or personal use?
1. Every new session should start from a clean image
Regular browsers fetch code from the web and execute it on the local computer. This web code serves many purposes - images and text, cookies and other trackers used to monitor your online activity, or active scripts that fetch and render page content from a variety of sources.
These elements are designed to stick around after you quit your web session. Image data is cached in your local file system. Cookies and trackers stay put to collect data and build long-term profiles, based on your browsing activity. And the browser stores your web history forever, which can have all kinds of unwanted consequences.
Why it is important:
What if you kept eating and never went to the bathroom? That’s how bloated your browser gets after you’ve used it for a while. Your disk is filling up with all kinds of digital residue you may not want anymore.
More importantly, the web code that’s sitting in your cache may contain malicious code that can track your keystrokes, turn on your webcam, see where you visit, and more.
A secure browser that destroys itself after every session ensures that none of that potentially malicious content can persist.
Must-have feature: a secure browser protects the user with a fresh start for every web session
2. A secure browser should execute all web code in a sandbox or virtual container, restricting access to system resources
Throwing away the browser after each session, and starting from a fresh image is important - no potentially harmful residue remains. But how can you protect yourself from malicious web code during the session itself?
One major security weakness of regular browsers is their dangerously tight integration with local system resources, such as the file system, the operating system (OS) or audio/video drivers.
Running the web browser in a "sandbox" or virtual container prevents malicious code from accessing the parts of your computer’s OS that it shouldn’t.
Why it is important:
Confining web code execution to a virtual environment outside the IT infrastructure reduces the local attack surface.
If malicious code tries to plant itself somewhere in your system or tries to reach out into your files to encrypt them and charge you a ransom, the container can prevent that from happening.
3. The secure browser should let users or admins control content by type - including advertising
Advertising makes the world go ‘round. You can thank advertising for all the wonderful free services you get on the internet.
Ad networks plant code on your device to present compelling images of the SUV advertisers want you to buy, or the cruise they want you to book. They can also monitor your movements on the web and keep targeting you with pitches for more products and services, based on your location at the time or the data they have collected about you over time.
This is all a result of that same issue described under 1. Browsers dutifully download code from websites and execute it locally. Publishers and ad agencies exploit the inherent weakness of internet protocols to monetize traffic.
In late 2015 / early 2016, visitors of big name websites like NYTimes.com, Xfinity.com, BBC.com and MSN.com were exposed to a particularly nasty attack exploiting the security weaknesses of several large advertising networks. They ended up delivering malware in addition to ads.
Any secure browser should give you the ability to restrict what kind of third party content runs on your device.
Should you block all ads? You’ll have to make that decision for yourself - keep in mind that advertising revenue pays for the free apps and services you’re using. But if you care about protecting yourself and your data, you should block script-based content and all non-first party cookies (like those dropped on your computer by ad networks when you visit your favorite news site).
Why it is important:
Having control over the content makes a browser more secure and less susceptible for web-borne threats like ransomware, because certain files and formats pose a greater risk than others when downloaded from the web and processed on a local device.
A secure browser lets users or business IT administrators determine if and how the browser should handle executable Java and Flash multimedia plugins and files.
It also enables them to exclude - or to quarantine - media and file formats like TIFF, MP3/MPG4, PDFs, and others. Think of ad blockers as content filters for a broad range of content, even beyond the advertisement itself.
4. A secure browser should hide your IP address
You probably know the aphorism from Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22”: “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Anywhere you go on the internet, you’re being tracked. Not just by the sites you visit - their publishers and advertisers do it to recognize return visitors and provide better service. But also by your ISP, the hotspot at Starbucks, government agencies, and more.
And the more you do on the web, the bigger your profile becomes.
So why not use someone else’s IP address? One that doesn’t easily trace back to you.
Why it is important:
By using an alternate IP address, you’re wrapping your web activity in another layer of disguise. That’s not just to prevent surveillance.
It also makes it harder for bad guys to target you, because you’re not exposing details about your actual computing device, the internal network it belongs to, and your location.
We think any browser needs to offer all of these capabilities to deserve the label “secure.”
It should start from a fresh image and prevent any malicious code from infecting your local system. You should have control over what kind of content loads in the browser, and who that website thinks you are.
Sounds very simple, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. The online world is complicated and dangerous. And just because a vendor says their browser is secure, that doesn’t mean it actually is.
In the second part of this post, read why a secure browser should
- enable control over data exchange between websites,
- allow for saving of limited profile information,
- provide temporary or virtual storage for arms-length file manipulation, and
- Integrate authentication services for restricting access to browser and web resources.