How much does a website know about you?

Your Internet browser (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.) and most every website you visit with it collects information about you—who you are, where you’ve been, and even what you did. While this can be useful if you need to remember a website that you visited a few days ago or reclaim a shopping cart at an online store, it can also become an invasion of your privacy. There are several options for controlling how much information a browser collects, shares, and how long it saves that information.

There are a few key concepts and terms used by nearly all browsers when it comes to privacy and security settings. Many of these are set automatically but can be changed or set as desired:

  • History, or ‘browsing history’ is a record of the websites you visited or clicked on. By default, most browsers remember your browsing history for several days or weeks.
  • Cookies are how websites ‘know’ you—they are pieces of information that are downloaded when you visit a website, and then stored by your browser for future use. While they enrich and personalize many of the websites you visit, they can also pose a risk to security and privacy. By default, most browsers accept and store cookies indefinitely.
  • Plugins are programs that your browser installs from websites you visit that, similar to cookies, can store information about you but also use interact with the websites you visit. Some websites will require you to have a plugin of some kind in order to view them properly, or at all.  Because they are programs, Plugins themselves can present security risks—please also visit the ITS support page for browser security for more information on managing and securing plugins and other browser software.
  • Cache, or ‘browser cache’ is a collection of saved documents and images that your browser holds on to in order to load content faster. By default, a browser will store this information on your hard drive and keep it until asked to remove it, or if the computer starts to run out of space.
  • Pop-ups and Pop-up Blocks are often enabled by browsers to prevent pop-up advertising, which most users have grown to dislike. Some websites, however, require that pop-ups be allowed and will ask to permit them. These ‘allowed web sites’ are stored by the browser indefinitely, or unless asked to be deleted.
  • Form Data and/or Saved Passwords are data that you have typed in to a website or ‘form’ that the browser has saved so you don’t have to fill them in each time you visit the website.  Most browsers ask if you’d like to ‘save’ information for future use, it is strongly recommended that you do not permit data and/or password saving for websites and that this information is regularly cleaned or deleted if it is there.

While all browsers have settings that allow customization for privacy and security, Colby ITS currently recommends Mozilla Firefox, which offers excellent options for secure, private browsing.

Manage your privacy settings

Instructions on managing the privacy and security settings that control these elements for most major Internet browsers are listed below. Please note that deleting saved browser data will result in websites no longer ‘knowing’ who you are, and that your preferences, settings, and identity data will no longer be there. Browser plugins and add-ons are not affected by general settings, and other browser preferences, including bookmarks, are not changed in this process.

Mozilla Firefox—Settings for Privacy, Browsing History, and Do-Not-Track

Google Chrome—Chrome’s Privacy Settings

Apple Safari—Safari Privacy Settings

Microsoft Internet Explorer—Internet Explorer Privacy Settings

Apple Safari for iOS (iPhone, iPad)—iOS Safari Web Settings

Lastly, always make sure that your web browser and related software are a current, up-to-date version. More information on Internet Browser security can be found in the ITS support page on Browser Security.