Essential Firefox security add-ons

No browser is unbreachable, but the security add-ons available for Mozilla's Firefox browser certainly put the odds in your favor.

There's no way to reduce to zero your risk of picking up some piece of malware while browsing. You need layers of security to keep viruses, Trojans, and botnets at bay—the more layers, the safer your browsing. (Of course, the more layers, the slower your browsing, too, so don't get carried away.)

Much emphasis has been placed on the enhanced security features of the latest versions of the popular browsers. Whether one is any safer than another is anybody's guess, but no browser gives you more ways to thwart a Web-based attack than Firefox via its wealth of security add-ons.

Link checkers add warnings to search results
Search results are often difficult to trust, even when the URL looks familiar. Phishers are adept at planting dangerous links that look like harmless ones. Link checkers provide you with an indication of the trustworthiness of sites before you click their links. (Note that several of the products are available for Internet Explorer as well.)

Some of the programs, such as McAfee's SiteAdvisor, give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on a single company's research. Web of Trust (WOT) bases its recommendations on the collective intelligence of a network of volunteers. LinkExtend is a link-check aggregator that combines the analyses of eight different services.

McAfee SiteAdvisor search ratings
McAfee SiteAdvisor adds a safety indicator to Web search results. McAfee

While the recommendations of link checkers are helpful in identifying safe sites, you can't take their yeas and nays as gospel. For example, sites that offer downloads of system utilities may be flagged as dangerous because the programs require access to the operating system and thus could do major damage in the wrong hands.

Track the trackers
You know popular Web sites download software that tracks your activities on their sites, but do you know who's doing the tracking? Find out with the Ghostery add-on that pops up the names of the trackers as the page opens. The program puts a small "ghost" icon in the bottom-right corner of the Firefox window that turns orange when trackers are present. Click the link that appears to the right of the icon to find out more about the trackers and block them individually or entirely.

Ghostery Firefox security add-on
The Ghostery Firefox add-on lets you know who's tracking your activities on the site. Ghostery

View encryption specs
When you open an encrypted Web page, a lock icon appears in the bottom-right corner of the Firefox window and the URL in the address bar begins with "https." But there's more than one form of encryption, and knowing which type and strength of encryption in use can be handy.

The CipherFox add-on puts in the bottom-right of the Firefox status bar the Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) cipher and keysize currently in use. Double-clicking the entry opens the CipherFox dialog box, where you can disable RC4 encryption and display partial SSL/TLS. (Note that the developer accepts donations to support the product.)

Take charge of Web password management
Firefox's built-in password manager lets you create a master password and remember passwords for specific sites, but if you want to get serious about managing your passwords, get LastPass, a password manager that provides much more granular control over your sign-ins.

After you download and install the add-on, an icon is placed in the top-right corner of the Firefox window. Click it to open the LastPass menu, which lets you manage your identities, open the LastPass Vault, jump to favorite sites, and generate secure passwords. You can also import or export sign-in IDs, compose and print secure notes, and assign keyboard shortcuts for specific actions.

In addition to Firefox and IE, LastPass is available for Google Chrome and Apple's Safari browsers. LastPass backs up your passwords by storing an encrypted copy on its own servers. And because you can access your passwords via the Internet, you can use LastPass on any Web-connected device, although use of LastPass on an iPhone or other smart phone requires a Premium membership, which costs $1 a month. (You can also put LastPass on a USB thumbdrive for use with Firefox Portable and other portable apps.)

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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