Web Browsers: Dealing with Security Issues and Finding a Browser that Suits Your Needs

Security vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer regularly make headlines all over the country; most notably, Penn State recently began to encourage users on their network to stop using Explorer altogether. Microsoft's program of releasing free security patches draws some praise for the company's sense of responsibility, but leaves experts and average users alike questioning the browser's safety. Are these the concerns of over-anxious prophets of technological doom? Not necessarily. While it is possible to configure Explorer to be reasonably secure, IT Security Coordinator Bob Ono notes that, "doing so requires some careful consideration and most end-users avoid it as the process can be confusing." The most practical solution is to make a different browser your primary one and keep Explorer on hand in case you need it to access certain pages that can only be viewed in IE.

Fortunately, IT Express, the campus computing help desk, has recently taken the step of providing technical support for several additional browsers, including Apple's Safari, the Mozilla suite (which includes a browser), and Mozilla's standalone browser Firefox. What's more, according to IT Express, campus computer services should function with these browsers.

It should be noted that adding a new browser does not require removing Explorer, and there are reasons not to do so. Windows users, in fact, cannot actually delete Internet Explorer because it is an essential part of the operating system, and Windows Update uses a special feature of IE called ActiveX that other browsers do not support. Even Mac users may want to keep Explorer (though Microsoft has stopped supporting the Mac version) as some Web sites do not work with other browsers.

Browsing Browsers
If you choose to add another browser or to switch altogether, you should first conduct research on the various models, says Ono, because the choices can be overwhelming; typing "Web browser" into Google, for instance, brings up 15 different programs in the first three pages of results.

One major criterion you should consider is whether the browser is maintained by a company--such as Netscape and Apple--that repairs bugs and provides regular updates; because all browsers need updates, you should regularly check to make sure that you have the latest version. Finally, users can enable certain options that make a browser more or less secure, so you should learn about your new browser's safety features. It's worth noting that all of the browsers mentioned in this article are available free. Most new Macintoshes come with Safari installed, and users of older Macs can download it at www.apple.com/safari. Mozilla and Firefox can be obtained from www.mozilla.org, and Mozilla itself is available on the MyUCDavis Software page.

Browser Features
In addition to increased security, other browsers may have useful features that Explorer lacks. One of the most popular is "tabbed" browsing—loading multiple Web pages in the same window to save screen space. Many also block pop-up windows and offer a search bar (a feature available in Explorer with the Google Toolbar plug-in).

All Around Security
Whichever you choose, a browser itself will not make your computing secure, though it will help. Installing and maintaining the right browser is an important step toward keeping your computer safe, but computer security is a complex process that ultimately depends upon you, as a user, making the right decisions. You can find further help in your effort to keep your computer safe by consulting "Ten Steps to Safe Computing" found at http://security.ucdavis.edu/security101.cfm.