Stay safe with Internet Explorer 9

There are some people, who, even today, are wary and suspicious of going online. The news is often filled with reports of scary sounding hacks and privacy invasions, with criminals stealing information from the unwary. The truth is that there are unscrupulous individuals out there, but as long as you're using a modern, well-designed Internet browser, it's easy to stay safe online. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9 is just such a browser. Not only will it keep you safe online, it can actually save you money too, as often key, built-in security features will negate the need for you to go out and buy third-party security software.

SmartScreen filter enhanced

A basic problem on the Internet is simply people downloading files they shouldn't. While every download comes with a warning that the file could harm your computer, this is so generic that virtually everyone automatically ignores this. IE9 looks to make its warnings more useful with its SmartScreen Applications Reputation filter, an enhancement of the SmartScreen technology first introduced in IE8.

The SmartScreen filter analyses web pages as you browse the web, and checks them against a constantly updated listed of malicious sites. These could be phishing sites, fake sites which trick the unwitting into revealing data, or malware sites, that without the user knowing hosts unsafe programs that infect the unsuspecting users computer with a virus or other form of malware.

IE9's Application Reputation filter takes this a step further by checking your downloads against a database of reputable downloads hosted in the cloud. If your download is recognised then you'll be able to continue without interruption. If not, then you'll get a warning.

If IE9 doesn't recognise the file you're trying to download it will alert you that the file cannot be verified. Pay attention to this!

To enable the SmartScreen Filter, go to the Settings button at the top right of IE9, select the 'Safety' menu and select the 'Turn on SmartScreen Filter' option.

Another security feature unique to IE9 is Tracking Protection Lists (or TPL). Once installed, any website you go to that's on the list will be sent a Do Not Track signal, telling that site not to track you online. This means blocking tracking tools such as third-party cookies, tracking pixels, web beacons, hit counters and analytics scripts. In many cases it will even block adverts as they often rely on these tracking methods to be able to draw down the relevant advert to you.

To be clear, the list just blocks third-party tracking. If you go directly to say www.amazingcats.com then the TPL list won't kick in. However, any sites that www.amazingcats.com draws data from that are on the list will be blocked. The idea is to prevent companies building up a picture of where you go online for whatever reason; usually commercial ones related to advertising.

Tracking Protection Lists are third-party lists of sites that you can tell not to track you to improve your privacy online.

To add a TPL, go to Options at the top right of your browser and choose 'Tracking Protection' in the Safety menu. The Manage Add-ons box will appear and from here click the arrow next to 'Get a Tracking Protection List online...'

The lists are not provided by Microsoft, but are created and maintained companies that have an interest in consumer privacy. You'll therefore have to do your own research to find out which lists you trust and which one best serves your needs. These lists should be regularly updated and you can tell IE9 to check for updates as often as every day or once a month, with the default being once a week. Alternatively, you could manually build up your own list. IE9 lists all the sites that have been tracking you and you can choose to block these one by one.

Aside from privacy, one advantage of blocking content this way is that it can reduce your bandwidth consumption by minimising the data each page loads. If you're using a mobile broadband connection and are near the limit of a bandwidth cap it could be a useful way of staying within your limits and staying active online.

InPrivate Browsing

Another method for staying safe online is integrated right into IE9. The InPrivate Browsing feature will prevent IE9 from storing any details about your browsing session such as cookies and temporary Internet files. If you're browsing on a computer that's used by others, such as an on a university computer, or an Internet cafe, it's a great idea to use this all the time for peace of mind. Once you close your browser no one will be able to hunt through it to extract login information or banking details. If you right click the IE9 icon on the Windows 7 taskbar you'll be able to directly launch an InPrivate browsing session.

Simply running in InPrivate mode will prevent sensitive data from being stored on a computer - always a sensible move on a shared machine.

ActiveX Filtering

IE9 uses a technology called ActiveX to enable add-ons, such as Adobe Flash, or Microsoft Silverlight to run inside the browser. These add-ons are often essential to enable users to watch video or play games, or do other interactive tasks inside their browser. In the past however, ActiveX controls were often used by unscrupulous hackers to find a way in to run malware inside the browser. As such, many users would prefer to leave Active X off, and just enable it on a case-by-case basis and ActiveX Filtering in IE9 lets you do that. Once enabled, ActiveX content will be blocked and if you visit a site that uses it, the fall-back content will be displayed instead. You'll be subtly alerted via a blue icon in the address bar and you can click this to disable the function temporarily.

The blue 'blocked' icon at the top right of the browser window is a subtle way of indicating that ActiveX Filtering is on.

Cross-Site Scripting Filter

Another issue facing users online today is attacks that use Cross-site scripting, where code from one website is 'injected' into another site enabling the attackers to gain access to that page's content, which might contain sensitive information such as usernames and passwords. IE9 can recognise this type of attack and by default has its XXS filter enabled. When it finds a harmful script running on a web page it takes steps to disable the script and keep anyone visiting the website protected.

Site blocking

Kids these days are getting to grips with using the Internet more quickly than ever before, so if you're a parent, keeping them away from harmful or offensive material will be a major concern. IE9 helps out here with a built-in content filter. (From Internet options, select the Content tab and then under Content Advisor choose Enable). If you choose the Approved sites filter, you can choose to block specific sites. Enabling this will automatically prompt you to come up with a password so savvy kids can't turn the feature off when you're not around.

Here the eagle eyed, (and those that have read this sentence) will note that I have blocked Microsoft.com. You can never be too careful!

Pinned sites

Another way IE9 can keep you safe is to make use of the Pinned Sites features. This lets you drag a websites icon direct to your taskbar, where it will then integrate into Windows 7 and appear like a native program. A key security advantage of this is that a site you open this way, such as your bank, will not be at risk from any potential attacks and theft of session cookies from other browser windows and tabs. You will also be protected from so called 'man-in-the-middle' attacks, where a hacker can intercept a site redirection from HTTP to HTTPS, and lead user to a specially created phishing site.