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Ask your typical Mac user to name the piece of software they use the most often, and chances are they’re going to say their web browser.
But the more time you spend surfing the web, the more information your web browser gathers about you and your browsing habits. Most of this information is beneficial, helping your web browser provide a better user experience, for example by making it easier to access your favourite websites or allowing Safari to auto-complete forms for you. However, Safari and Apple may not be the only ones who have access to this information.
Whether it’s advertisers placing cookies on your computer, third parties tracking your online movements, or even your friends and family snooping through your web history, your typical web browser has the potential to provide a lot of people with a lot of information about you.
If you don’t like the idea of other scrutinising your online movements, then the good news is that Safari has lots of built-in security features that you can use to limit the information other people have access to, including third-parties who may be recording your browsing sessions without your consent.
In this article, we’re going to be looking at a number of Safari features that can help you ensure that your browsing sessions remain private, including a feature that sends a Do Not Track request to every single website you visit.
Do Not Track
Out of everyone who may be trying to access your browsing history and data, the one that tends to worry people the most, is third-parties. Third-party tracking allows organisations to record your online movements and compile information about you, even if you’ve never even visited that organisation’s website before. Third-parties typically gather this information via adverts that are hosted on the websites you do visit, and then use this data to display adverts that are specifically targeted at you. If you’ve ever searched for a product online, only to find adverts for that product suddenly popping up on completely unrelated websites, then you’ve seen third-party tracking in action.
To help you reduce third party tracking, many modern web browsers include a Do Not Track feature – and Safari is no exception. When this feature is enabled, your browser lets websites know that you don’t want to be tracked, by adding an HTTP header to all your web traffic.
To enable Do Not Track in Safari:
- Launch Safari.
- Select ‘Safari’ from the toolbar, followed by ‘Preferences….’
- In the subsequent window, select the ‘Privacy’ button.
- Select the ‘Ask websites not to track me’ checkbox.
Safari isn’t the only browser that includes a Do Not Track option, so even if you regularly use another browser (for example, maybe your workplace requires you to use a non-Safari browser), then you can still take advantage of this feature:
- Chrome. Select ‘Chrome > Preferences…’ from the Chrome toolbar. Make sure ‘Settings’ is selected in the left-hand menu, and then click ‘Show Advanced Settings.’ Find the ‘Privacy’ section and select the ‘Send a Do Not Track request…’ checkbox.
- Firefox. Select ‘Firefox > Preferences….’ from the Firefox toolbar. Select the ‘Privacy’ icon, and then select ‘Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked.’
- Opera. Select ‘Opera > Preferences’ from the toolbar. Select ‘Privacy & Security’ from the left-hand menu, then select the ‘Send a Do Not Track request…’ checkbox.
- Internet Explorer. Launch Internet Explorer and select the Gear icon located in the upper-right corner of the browser window. Select ‘Safety’ from the dropdown menu, followed by ‘Turn on Do Not Track requests.’
The downside is that a Do Not Track request is exactly that: a request. Websites aren’t legally required to honour this request, so while this feature provides an additional layer of security, you shouldn’t rely on Do Not Track alone to keep your browsing habits private.
Review your Cookie Settings
A cookie is a small data file that’s placed on your computer, and contains information that a specific website wants to store, such as your IP address, operating system, and the date you lasted visited the website, as well as any personal information you’ve provided such as your name and email address. When you revisit a website, it uses this information to tailor the experience to better suit you. Some cookies are helpful, for example a cookie might contain preferences you created the last time you visited this website, but other cookies can be used to display targeted adverts or to track your web activity.
By default, Safari only accepts cookies from websites you visit, and will attempt to block any third-party cookies. However, you can change these default settings to block more cookies, or even to prevent any cookies from being placed on your Mac.
To review how Safari handles cookies, open Safari’s ‘Preferences…’ menu and then select the ‘Privacy’ tab. In the ‘Cookies and website data’ section, you’ll find the following options:
- Always block. Safari doesn’t let any websites, third parties, or advertisers store cookies on your Mac. Note that blocking all cookies may change the behaviour of some websites that rely on cookies in order to deliver their core functionality, so if you experience any strange behaviour after selecting this option, then you may need to return to this menu and dial back your security settings.
- Allow from current website only. Safari only accepts cookies from websites you’ve visited. Safari doesn’t allow any third parties to store or access cookies on your machine.
- Allow from websites I visit. Safari uses your existing cookies to determine whether you’ve visited a website before, and prevents all websites you haven’t previously visited from storing and accessing your cookies.
- Always allow. Safari lets all websites, third parties, and advertisers store cookies on your Mac. You’ll typically want to avoid this option, unless you have a specific reason for enabling it.
Review your Geolocation Settings
When you visit a geolocation-enabled website, Safari may ask whether you want to share your location with this website. Many websites have legitimate reasons for requesting access to your location, for example a website may be able to display regional news stories or a weather report based on your current location.
You can review Safari’s geolocation settings, by opening Safari’s ‘Preferences…’ menu and selecting the ‘Privacy’ tab. At this point, you can choose between the following location settings:
- Prompt for each website once each day.
- Prompt for each website one time only.
- Deny without prompting. As long as this option is enabled, you won’t see any messages asking you to grant a website access to your location. If you change your mind and want to start allowing websites to access this information again, then you’ll need to return to this menu and select one of the ‘Prompt for each website…’ options instead.
Keeping your Browsing History Private
By default, whenever you browse the web, information about your browsing session is stored on your local computer. This can be a problem if you share your Mac with other people, as even if you trust them not to go poking around in your web history, they may still stumble across some trace of your previous browsing sessions by accident. For example, when they’re typing into the address bar, Safari may display some suggested search terms based on your previous browsing history.
Even if you’re the only person who uses your Mac, you may still want to employ some of the following techniques, as the less information stored in your web browser, the less data organisations and third parties could potentially gain access to.
In this section, I’m going to share a few ways that you can reduce the personal data and Internet history stored in your browser, including how to ensure this information is never even recorded in the first place.
1. Get into the habit of cleaning your history and cache
Clearing your cache and deleting your web history is one of the easiest and most effective ways of keeping your browsing sessions private, and is particularly important if you share your Mac with other people. Just be aware that clearing this data will log you out of any websites you’re currently logged into.
To clear Safari’s cache:
- Open Safari’s ‘Preferences.’
- Select the ‘Privacy’ tab.
- Click the ‘Manage Website Data’ button.
- In the subsequent window, click ‘Remove all.’
To clear you browser history, select ‘History > Clear History’ from the Safari toolbar. You can then decide whether you want to delete your entire history, or just the websites you’ve looked at within a particular timeframe, such as within the last day or hour.
2. Consider disabling Autofill
Safari’s Autofill feature remembers the text you enter into online forms, so Safari can complete these fields for you automatically the next time you visit this website. This can be a time-saver when it comes to logging into your favourite websites or making online purchases, but if you share your Mac with other people they you might not be thrilled about your credit card details popping up every time they try to make a purchase on your Mac!
To change the information that Autofill records, or even disable Autofill completely, open Safari’s ‘Preferences…’ menu and then select the ‘Autofill’ tab
At this point, you’ll see the different categories of Autofill information:
- Using info from my contacts.
- User names and passwords.
- Credit cards.
- Other forms.
To stop Autofill from recording and using information that falls into a certain category, simply deselect that category’s accompanying checkbox. For example, if you don’t want Autofill to enter your payment details whenever someone tries to make a purchase on your Mac, then deselect the ‘Credit cards’ checkbox.
3. Exclude browsing history from Spotlight Searches
You may have noticed that web pages you’ve previously visited are sometimes included in your Spotlight Search results.
If you’d prefer your browser history to not pop up in your Spotlight Searches, then complete the following steps:
- Click the ‘Apple’ logo in the menu bar, followed by ‘System Preferences…’
- Select ‘Spotlight’ and make sure the ‘Search results’ tab is selected.
- De-select ‘Books & History.’
4. Remove ‘Frequently Visited Sites’
By default, Safari displays your most frequently visited sites whenever you open a new window or tab. To remove this information, select ‘Bookmarks’ from the Safari toolbar, and then deselect ‘Show Frequently Visited in Favorites.’
5. Use Private Browsing
If you really want to make sure that your browsing history remains private, then you should use Safari’s Private Browsing mode. When you open a window or tab in Private Browsing mode, Safari will automatically discard all the data associated with that session (including cookies, history, cache, Autofill information, and website data) as soon as you close that tab or window. Using Private Browsing also prevents your browsing activity from being stored in iCloud, so the webpages you’ve visited won’t appear on any devices where you’re logged in with the same iCloud ID.
To start a Private Browsing session, select ‘File > New Private Window’ from the Safari toolbar.
If you want Safari to launch in Private Browsing mode automatically, then:
- Open Safari’s ‘Preferences…’
- Select the ‘General’ tab.
- In the ‘Safari opens with’ dropdown, select ‘A new private window.’
6. Consider using a browser extension
Although Safari has a number of built-in settings that can make it more difficult for other people and organisations to access your browsing history and personal information, you may want to add another layer of security by installing a browser extension.
Disconnect is a privacy-minded Safari extension that displays the total number of tracking requests Safari receives every time you visit a website. You can then use Disconnect to see exactly where these requests are originating from, and can even block them, if desired.
You can download the Basic version of the Disconnect Private Browsing extension for free. Once the extension is installed, you’ll notice a new button has been added to your Safari toolbar. Try visiting a few different websites, and this button will update to display the total number of requests it’s receiving. To find out more about these requests, click the button to open a dropdown containing the different request categories: Advertising, Analytics, Social and Content. Click any of these categories, to see the individual tracking requests and where they originate from.
To deny a tracking request, simply deselect its accompanying checkbox.
7. Consider switching search engines
If you’ve ever started typing into your favourite search engine only for it to display a dropdown of suggestions based on your previous searches, then you’ll already be aware that the majority of search engines record all of your search queries.
Although clearing your cache and your web history will remove all this information, you can prevent this data from being recorded in the first place, by switching to a non-tracking search engine such as DuckDuckGo.
If you’re in the habit of entering your search queries into Safari’s address bar, rather than visiting the search engine itself, then you’ll need to tell Safari to use DuckDuckGo as your default search engine:
- Open Safari’s ‘Preferences…’ window.
- Select the ‘Search’ tab.
- Open the ‘Search engine’ dropdown, and then select ‘DuckDuckGo.’
From this point onwards, any search queries you type into the Safari address bar will be completed via DuckDuckGo, and therefore won’t be recorded.