March 10, 2021

Browsers, Privacy, and Research Part 3

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

Here is the final article in the trilogy. The first part was an introduction, then the privacy and other things were discussed in the second part. Now it is time to examine a few extensions (also called add-ons) that this cowboy has found helpful for productivity and security.

Extensions can be privacy risks, but when selected with care, they can enhance both productivity and internet safety. Especially in strong browsers.
Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos / dfrsce
It doesn't take an architect to add extensions since other people did the construction. Finding them is not much of a challenge, but loading good ones requires discretion. They can easily be added onto the browser's structure. Sometimes, too easily.

Once again, I must point out that I am writing about my experiences using a Windows 10 desktop computer. Do my experiences and learning qualify me as a "power user"?

Some Extensions can be Harmful

Yeah, get the caution out there before discussing what I am using. I was unable to learn how many extensions are available for Firefox, but there are quite a few. Most people use browser extensions. As discussed in earlier articles, the Chromium software is the basis for Chrome, Vivaldi, Edge, Avast!, Brave, and others. Those developers make their own refinements, and for the most part, the approximately 200,000 Chrome extensions work on those browsers.

Both Mozilla (the Firefox folks) and Chrome try to monitor extensions for security, but over seventy malware extensions crept in. Many are deleted from the Chrome store, but people using those extensions on other Chromium-related browsers may want to check this link themselves, and use their search function to check theirr extensions against this list. If someone has an extension that was suddenly deactivated, check to see if there's a reason for it.

When people want to purchase something online, they should check: How long the vendor has been working, total reviews, recent reviews, and so on. In a similar way, it may be a reason for caution if the extension has only a few installs, if it is new, has something like "get free stuff" in the description, and so on. If the extension has less than sixteen installs, consider leaving it alone.

Just for fun, look at this older but undated article which recommends a hundred extensions. I lack belief that they intend for someone to get all of them. It's extremely focused on the Google ecosystem, and I know some of them are bad. Elsewhere, most of the ten on this list strike me as frivolous. Also, readers may want to see ThioJoe's video of interesting extensions, which is a bit more thoughtful.

Just a bit more information so people can make informed decisions. First, "Browser Extensions Are a Privacy Nightmare: Stop Using So Many of Them". Most extensions are free, and the Chrome store is like free day at the candy factory. No need to be in such a hurry to load up! Also see, "Browser Extensions: Are They Worth the Risk?" Two simple tools that you have available are experience and healthy skepticism. You can also look things up when a report crosses your radar about privacy concerns related to the Honey  and Grammarly extensions, for example.

Don't be disunderstanding me, though. Honest and well-intentioned extension developers are out there. Unfortunately, they can be hacked and the sidewinders can strike us. More established extensions have a good chance of being safer, but they are also targeted by hackers.

Bogged Down

This short section is important enough to warrant its own space. Suppose a user has a prairie schooner-full of extensions and all of them are safe. The simplest reason to avoid overcrowding the corral is that they use up bandwidth and slow down the browser. (Compare internet speed with a "clean" browser without extensions.) If there are some extensions that are seldom used, use the extension settings and switch them off. Most of the time that is simply a right-click, select "manage", then turn it off until needed, then switch it back on at that time. If the extension remains unused, it may not be needed it after all, so consider uninstalling it.

Privacy Extensions

It's a mite ironic that while extensions can be hazards, several are made that make your browsing life more secure. Privacy Badger has been highly recommended, and I have it on Chromium-based browsers as well as Waterfox (it can be put on Firefox as well, obviously). There are several extensions that have loyal fans who want to slap leather with each other outside the saloon, especially Ghostery and uBlock Origin (also, AdBlock Plus). I've traded off, but currently have uBlock on some of these. By the way, the three mentioned here each have millions of users.

An interesting extension set for Firefox/Waterfox is Containers. Essentially, web cookies go into their own jars so they don't get crumbs all over each other. Facebook is restricted from tracking you, and that fence can be disabled as desired. There are banking, shopping, personal, and other categories, and users can set up their own containers. Some can be assigned so that every time a bookmark is clicked, it automatically opens in that container. These setting can be changed. I have Fakebook and several Google properties in their own categories so they can't follow me around the web and tell Big Tech where I am and what to suggest for sale.

An interesting advantage to Containers is that since cookies are separated, someone can log in to separate accounts at the same time on the same browser.

Reading Views

It gets so tedious trying to get through all the clutter when wanting to simply read an article. Firefox has a Reader View, and Edge has Immersive Reader. Those let people customize the background to some extent, but they also have an option for TTS (text-to-speech). On Edge, if Microsoft Natasha was real, I would ask her out. But seriously, that voice is almost perfect for my hearing. So is the Michael voice. Computer voices have come a long way in recent years.

However, those options are not always available; they won't saddle up on some sites. Reader View by Yorkis has been extremely good to me. Several options in reading as well as having your installed computer voices read to you. (Natasha reads to me through this extension on Edge as well.) A right-click gives the Reader View option. Also, the user can customize and edit text and save the document. I have used highlighting, bold, italics, deletion, and other things when using an article for reference.

Watch out for imitations. Since a lot of this is open source, people have made rip-offs of the Yorkis version. Out of curiosity, I tried a couple. They were close, but not as good. Also, if they would hijack the original, what other tricks will the developers pull?

Sending to eBook Readers

While we're in the neighborhood, there are other extensions or bookmarklets available for eBook readers. The three here involve Kindle, which is has a large customer base, but one has other options. Amazon's own extension allows editing the title and author's name. I customize several so they show the organization and date, then they are sorted on the device.

Send to Reader has various plans, but I have no use for them. It's simple and fires off the article to the Kindle. It also has a compose area on their site so things can be copied and pasted, or even several articles can be put together with URLs as one document. There is no extension any longer, but a JavaScript bookmarklet can be dragged onto the toolbar. 

Finally, the nice people at Five Filters have a Push to Kindle bookmarklet. The free version is limited to thirty articles a month. Also, after selecting the preview before selecting "send", there is an option to download EPUB and PDF versions.

These have saved me a great deal of eyestrain because I don't have to look at the monitor screen so much. By the way, I have the last two Kindle bookmarklets on Opera, so I got that going for me, which is nice.

Password Managers

There are many of those out there, open source and paid versions. I thought long and hard about going forward with this because all the internet passwords are in one place. They have safeguards in place and a passel of encryption, so I think that even if the provider was hacked, the hacker would get gibberish. However, if the user forgets or misplaces the One Password to Rule them All, it's a huge problem.

Fortunately, it is possible to make backups or even print out the master password list. I have recommended KeePass before, but have not tried its online version. Even so, it is useful to store passwords on the desktop and save backups elsewhere. The manager I'm using now has both browser extensions (Firefox and Chromium) and a desktop version. My desktop and browser extensions all synchronize with each other, so I can log in from Waterfox, Avast!, Brave, or whatever.

Saving Tabs

No, I'm not talking about those aluminum things from soda cans. Tabs on browsers. When I'm doing research, it's not uncommon for me to have a dozen of them open for reference. What if the power goes out or I make a mistake and close the browser? They may be saved in the history of the browser, sure, but it takes a long time to weed through all that. Vivaldi has a tab saver built in, but the user has to actively select it.

Tab Session Manager by Sienori has the user covered for the most part. By default, there are incremental savings of tabs, and it usually saves them when the browser is exited. That means tabs for reference are not gone. Also, if it's time to watch Stargate SG-1, I can save the set to open later. It gets a mite tedious deleting them, but worth the extra clicking. This can be had on Chromium- and Firefox-related browsers.

Visual Bookmarks

There are several of these available, apparently pioneered by Opera's Speed Dial. Chrome, Vivaldi, Firefox/Waterfox, and others have their versions built in. I want all my visual bookmarks to be the same on each browser that I use. While there are several options, I want with Speed Dial 2. Several of my most important bookmarks are available in the same way on each browser. That's because I registered. Also, I paid the small fee for the "pro" version.

Screenshot Extensions

Screenshot, screen cap(ture), whatever you call them, Edge and Vivaldi have the tools built into the browsers. So does Windows 10. There's a whole whack of 'em available (here are some recommendations), and several have worked reasonably well for me over the years. Nimbus Capture is highly rated. This one has various screenshot options and has a screen video recorder as well. However, editing the videos and certain other functions are only available at the paid level. Apparently, Awesome Screenshot has the same capabilities, but very limited on the free level.

Do people need those extensions? They have their convenience, but sometimes someone wants to act quickly. The old "print screen" button (often PRNT SCR or similar) does a fast grab, and then it can be pasted into video editing software for trimming and annotation. Also, there are free video recorders for the computer such as OBS Studio and ShareX to consider.

Taking Notes

This is something that has cost me a great deal of time with researching and testing. The Edge browser has Collections built in so the operator can send a web page to a collection or type out a note there. No spell check, and the amount of text is limited. When I ran out, I added more notes. Collections can by synchronized with mobile-device Edge.

Using Collections on Edge while watching a video
(Used under Fair Use provisions for educational purposes)
Vivaldi has a notes capability as well, but I thought it was so awkward, I searched for an add-on.

I came up empty. Some required registration, others worked with Google (which struck me as a security concern since they make Chrome, after all), and quite a few were baffling. Some "sticky notes" seemed promising, but were cumbersome or had other drawbacks.

ALT+TAB is useful to flip between applications or scroll through them. Two reasons that I did not extend my extension search. First, Edge does this notes thing well. Second, I can open up a word processing document and flip back and forth, or put both screens side-by-side and work that way.

Wrapping Up

These are not all of the extensions I use, nor are they all that I've tinkered with in the past. Using healthy skepticism, a bit of investigation, and moderation, extensions can help with research, privacy, and productivity. Sometimes they can even enhance web experiences. Remember the links furnished within this article so you can be better equipped to make informed decisions.

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