How Using An Ad Blocker Can Keep You Safe OnlineNo one loves looking at online ads, but a lot of people can agree that they’re a vital part of the Internet, helping businesses attract customers and websites pay for content. However, not all ads are created equal, with some rogue advertisements delivering viruses and spying on your private information. One solution: downloading an ad blocker, which can not only spare you from annoying ads, but also keep you safer as your browse online. To learn more about how ad blockers work, as well as how to find the right one for you, keep reading.

Why download an ad blocker?

The main reason many people download ad blockers is to hide intrusive ads that cover the web page they’re trying to see or make noise. While that’s valid, there’s another more important reason to download an ad blocker, and that’s to improve your cybersecurity. Online advertisements are increasingly being used as a path of attack for hackers, even on legitimate websites, so blocking suspicious ads will reduce your exposure to security threats.

For example, in 2016, accidentally served advertisements that stealthily opened a new window on readers’ computers and potentially downloaded ransomware. To make matters worse, had a notice on their website at the time asking readers to disable their ad blockers, causing some protected users to turn off their defenses. Aside from malware, rogue ads can also commandeer your device’s hardware to mine cryptocurrency in a process known as cryptojacking, and the tracking scripts that advertisers use to gauge the effectiveness of their ads can be retooled to steal information stored in your browser, such as email addresses and passwords.

How ad blockers work

Ad blockers typically operate by first shutting down connections with advertising servers, and then by hiding any visual elements of the advertisements that still load. How does the ad blocker know which connections to stop? Well, while some ad blockers are experimenting with artificial intelligence, many just keep big blacklists of known corrupted advertising domains and characteristics common in bad ads, as well as whitelists of trusted advertising domains. If the ad blocker sees something from its blacklist, it blocks it, and if it sees something from its whitelist, it lets it through.

The blacklisting and whitelisting rules of various ad blockers play a big part in what content they hide, so you should pick an ad blocker with listing rules that you like. For instance, some ad blockers only block ads that they detect as intrusive or overly complex (a sign that the ad may contain malware), while others block all advertisements. Before you choose an ad blocker, you should consider the financial impact it will have on your favorite websites, as many of them probably rely on advertising revenue to keep operating.

Ad blockers to consider

There are tons of ad blockers out there, but below are a handful of some of the most well-known ones. If you decide to download an ad blocker that isn’t on this list, do some research about it beforehand to make sure you aren’t downloading a malicious browser extension.

Google Chrome: If you use Google Chrome to browse the Internet, you may be aware that Google recently built an ad blocker right into its browser. By default, Chrome now filters out intrusive ads that take over your page, pop up in front of the website you’re looking at and automatically play videos with sound. However, it also lets many ads through, as long as they conform to a set of standards developed by a coalition of large tech companies, which includes Google itself. While these standards definitely exclude the most annoying types of ads, the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized the standards as not enough to protect users against malware and privacy invasion. Additionally, Chrome’s ad filter does not block YouTube ads (possibly because Google owns YouTube), and Chrome itself collects a lot of data on its users. While Chrome’s built-in ad blocker requires no setup or management, it may not be strict enough to cover all of your ad blocking needs.

Adblock Plus: Adblock Plus is not just one of the most popular ad blocking browser extensions, it’s also one of the most popular browser extensions period, with support on browsers like Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. It’s quite user friendly, and works by filtering all ads with certain invasive characteristics, except for ones on its default Acceptable Ads whitelist. How ads get a spot on its Acceptable Ads list, though, is a bit controversial. Most ads make the list due to a consistent history of unobtrusive placement, acceptable design and efficient resource usage, but larger companies have to pay Adblock Plus for a spot. This business relationship between large advertisers and a software company that is ideally impartial in how it blocks ads may be unnerving to some people, and is potentially a conflict of interest. However, apart from that, Adblock Plus is a good medium-strength ad blocker for people who don’t want to deal with much setup and are alright with seeing some ads.

Note that, because Adblock Plus is so popular, there are many malicious extensions that copy its name and logo to trick people into downloading them, similar to fake apps. If you want to download Adblock Plus, take care that you are downloading the correct extension and not an imitator.

uBlock Origin: uBlock Origin has been quietly gathering users on Firefox and Chrome for several years, who appreciate it for its customization, focus on privacy and lack of financial ties (the project even refuses donations). It maintains several default blacklists which are compiled by volunteers of multiple online privacy communities, and it allows users to add their own lists if they choose. One particularly unique feature is an element picker, which allows users to click on individual pieces of a website to hide them, whether it’s an ad or just something you don’t want to see. Although uBlock Origin is respected by security researchers and professionals, the downside is that it’s not nearly as user friendly as Adblock Plus or Chrome’s built-in ad blocker. The user interface can be tricky to navigate, it takes some configuring if you want to let unobtrusive ads through and if you accidentally hide something with the element picker, it’s not obvious how to undo your mistake. Furthermore, the community around uBlock Origin is quite technical, so it’s difficult to find help that explains things in simple terms.

No matter which one you choose, ad blockers are a simple way to make yourself a bit safer from hostile advertisements while you’re surfing the Internet. For more ways to keep your device secure and your data safe, follow our privacy blog.