Browser privacy settings still inadequate, NSS Labs analysis argues

IE10 offers the most control

Browser vendors continue to implement privacy in a half-hearted way, with Internet Explorer's default use of cookie 'do not track' technology being the best of a weak job, a new assessment by NSS Labs has argued.

Currently, the latest versions of all four leading browsers - IE, Firefox, Chrome and Safari - implement Do not track - but only Internet Explorer 10 installs it switched on by default, NSS Labs' latest Comparative Analysis found.

The cookie-tracking setting can be enabled in the other three, but only by locating an option in a menu setting. The authors are especially critical of Chrome, which requires users to find and expand a nested Advanced Settings tab to enable the feature.

Even Microsoft treats the do not track as a design afterthought, burying the settings where only the most curious non-expert users might chance upon it.

NSS Labs interprets this lack of enthusiasm for the setting as revealing each vendor's "philosophical views on consumer privacy," while accepting that do not track remains ineffective as a privacy control while advertisers remain free to ignore it as they please.

"Until legislation is passed that will mandate compliance with the user intent of Do not track, the feature will remain a polite request that will be ignored by the advertising industry," write authors Randy Abrams and Jayendra Pathak.

With third-party cookies, Safari and IE are given the thumbs up, with the former blocking all by default, and IE implementing a partial block. Although Firefox and Chrome don't activate this setting by default, Firefox in particular offers granular control over a setting that is vital to automate access to many commonly-used sites.

Other privacy features - the ability to control geo-location, private browsing and tracking protection lists - all fall down to some extent.

Controlling geo-location (the ability for a site to detect a user's country location), all four browsers prompt as required, but in order to disable the setting completely Firefox forces users to access the technically-demanding about:config page.

Uniquely, IE9/10 allows Tracking Protection lists from third-party vendors, essentially lists of sites for IE to block third party cookies automatically unless the setting is over-ridden by the user.

Overall, then, IE comes out on top for privacy thanks to the relative simplicity of its slider controls and privacy templates, but none of the four are given a ringing endorsement.

It remains unclear to what extent browser privacy and features such as do not track are valued or even understood by users. A YouGov poll from late last year found that consumers valued ease of use more highly than the ability to block cookies, although the same survey admitted that many disliked retargeted ads which follow users even when they have left sites.

Do not track has certainly upset some advertisers, with the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) recently lobbying a W3C discussion on how to standardise the way that not track should work.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags NSS LabsPersonal TechMicrosoftsecurity

More about MicrosoftW3C

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John E Dunn

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts