The internet of today scarcely seems the same entity as the web of just a couple of years ago. Ground-breaking tools for blogging, commenting, embedding video, sharing and championing content via sites such as Digg have turned the web upside down.
There might be a few new tools in our browser bar to enable us to enjoy in-page RSS feeds and forum updates but, until the past few months, our personal access to this web-based content has seemed just the same as ever.
The latest versions of the Safari, Opera and Firefox web browsers have changed all that, becoming both smarter and easier to use. Opera, for example, has a Speed Dial feature that lets you instantly jump to favourite pages, bookmarks or frequently visited sites and is far more intuitive than before.
Firefox, meanwhile, is chameleon-like in its ability to take on the attributes of the OS you’re using: the Vista version looks like a Vista app and the XP version is more like XP. You can also access sites by typing directly into the address bar – Firefox divines the site you want if you’ve visited it before.
Firefox 3.0 has gone down in history, with a Guinness World Record Certificate for ‘the largest number of software downloads in 24 hours’ after more than eight million users installed it within the first 24 hours of its release. Part of the take-up was due to Mozilla’s aggressive marketing, but we take our hats off to the developer for growing its user base.
One of the chief reasons for such interest in the browser is its security credentials. Mozilla says that in 2006, Internet Explorer users were vulnerable to online threats 78 percent of the time, while Firefox users were at risk just 2 percent of the time. Even now, it’s fair to say that using Firefox is a safer bet than the world’s most prevalent and therefore most obvious to attack browser.
Many of the cosmetic changes that have been made to the way Firefox 3.0 operates are down to the introduction of integrated tools that let you know whether a site you’re trying to visit is safe, and to improved handling of downloaded applications.
We’ll take a look at some of these security measures in the following workshop.
1. Mozilla says it will continue to support and issue updates for Firefox 2.2 until December this year, but urges users to upgrade to Firefox 3.0. If you’re happy with what you’ve got, click Check for Updates on the Help menu. If not, head to mozilla.com and download Firefox 3.0.
2. Firefox 3.0 performs a quick scan of your existing settings and preferences and takes them with into account – if Firefox isn’t your default browser, it won’t nag you to become so. Once installed, you’re taken to a Getting Started page where you can learn more about Firefox 3.0.
3. The instant website ID feature gives you a useful idea of what a site is all about. Click the avatar (icon) next to the site’s web address and Firefox will tell you which organisation owns the site – at least that’s the theory. In practice, hardly any sites are shown as having this information.
4. As you’ll see from the Security tab for PC Advisor, we don’t have encryption by default – it isn’t a retail site. Similarly, the product listings at Amazon.co.uk aren’t encrypted, though the pages to buy items are. Click View Saved Passwords on the Security tab to check what you’re automatically logging in to.
5. While many cookies are benign and assist web browsing by remembering details such as the fact you want UK-specific information, many people prefer not to have such information stored. Firefox 3.0 lets you delete cookies at a stroke. Click Security, View Cookies and press Clear to purge the lot.
6. Once you’ve cleared a specific site’s cookie cache, Firefox 3.0 displays a list of cookie folders from all the sites you’ve been to. Click on a folder to view its contents. Click a folder then Remove Cookies to remove all the cookies for a specific site or Remove All Cookies to get rid of the lot.
7. To prevent Firefox 3.0 storing cookies, click the Permissions tab. You can either disallow cookies entirely or allow them to be stored just for the web session. Under the same Permissions tab you can specify whether browser extensions can be used and whether images can load and pop-up windows run.
8. Cookies can help you navigate more quickly since you don’t have to keep telling the site what you’re after. However, Firefox 3.0 has a cunning feature that remembers what you looked at the last time you were at a site. Type the first few letters into the address bar and the Smart Location Bar will narrow down your list of options.
9. Firefox 3.0 includes a useful security feature we have long admired on the Mac – a master password option. Click the Tools tab at the top of the Firefox browser bar and choose Options, Security. Click the ‘Use Master Password option’, then enter a password that you’re absolutely certain you won’t forget.
10. Create exceptions by clicking Exceptions and entering the web address of any site that you don’t want to auto login to. The Security options page also lets you deselect various checks that will establish and then advise you whether a site poses a risk. We strongly advise you leave these settings alone.
11. Should you stumble across a web page that isn’t all it seems to be, Firefox 3.0 warns you in no uncertain terms. Firefox will either issue a pop-up warning if it suspects a forged site or will actively prevent access to it. If you really know better, you can click to ignore the warning. Rather you than us, though.
12. Firefox 3.0 also protects you by checking for a secure connection before allowing downloads and installing add-ons, more than 2,200 of which are already compatible with the month-old browser. Once you’ve agreed to an installation, it will quickly load into Firefox, after which you’ll be prompted to restart the browser.
13. Another helpful addition to Firefox 3.0 is its ability to limit access to sites depending on the age of the person using the (Vista) PC. To set this up, go to Control Panel, Parental Controls and add a new user account. Then click through the games, programs and website settings to block or allow access.
14. To verify that the restricted access account works and that Firefox is set up to maintain the security levels you deem appropriate, switch to your new, child-friendly account. Fire up Firefox and browse to a gambling or other adult-oriented site. Firefox 3.0 should throw a wobbly.