Android Intelligence Advice

How to give Chrome a super-simple security upgrade

Fortify your browser with a handful of quick clicks on your computer and your phone.

Chrome Security
JR Raphael, IDG

Android Intelligence Advice

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Smart security, just like autumn attire, is all about layers. The more effective pieces you have working to protect you, the less likely you'll be to let a burst of cold air — whether a metaphorical one or a literal one — catch you off-guard. (Also, the more flannel, the better. I'm not entirely sure how that applies to the tech side of things, but I'm stickin' with it.)

When it comes to browsing this wild ol' web of ours, after all, potential threats are a-plenty. Shady sites sit in wait to try to trick you into doing something dangerous, passwords are compromised constantly, and ghoulish virtual boogeymen who look curiously like Gary Busey crouch behind dark corners and prepare to pounce.

All right, so the threat of the electronic Busey dopplegangers might not be so massive. But the web is full of security trapdoors. And Google's got a brawny new layer to add to your ensemble and help keep you extra safe.

It's a new form of enhanced protection from web-based security threats in Chrome, and it's there and waiting to be activated. By default, though, it isn't on — and you'd probably never even know it was available. But if you take two minutes to find and enable it, it'll be a valuable extra piece of your tech protection outfit. You can even pretend it's flannel, if you want.

We'll start with the simpler side of things, on the desktop front, and then move from there to Android — where the feature requires a teensy bit of extra effort to uncover. Before we get into the specifics, though, let's take a second to break down this new form of browsing protection and what it's all about.

Chrome's Enhanced Safe Browsing mode: A quick overview

Right now, whether you realize it or not, your Chrome browser is probably using something Google calls Safe Browsing — on your computer, on your phone, and anywhere else you've got the thing installed.

Safe Browsing has been around in Chrome for a long time — since 2007, in fact, which was roughly 749 years ago by my current estimation. The system keeps an eye out for any signs of web-based malware, phishing, social engineering, and a bunch of other scary-sounding things. It also checks the URL of every page you open in the browser, in a split second before the site comes up, to make sure the address isn't listed in a collection of questionable sites Google maintains and stores locally in your Chrome browser (with updates trickling down from Google's own servers periodically).

If you've ever tried to open a web page and found yourself facing a weird error message telling you the site you're trying to pull up might try to steal your information, eat all your Mars Bars, or be unsafe for some other ungodly reason, well, there ya go — that's the Safe Browsing system at work.

The newer Enhanced Safe Browsing mode, meanwhile, first came to our attention in May. It takes that same concept and turns up the dial a notch, with real-time checking of every URL you pull up against Google's up-to-the-minute list of dangerous websites. That's a pretty big improvement from the previous system's method of checking against only the prestored list of problematic pages kept on your own computer.

The idea is that when a site tries to pull off some manner of trickery and change its domain faster than the prefetched list is updated — something that apparently happens more than you'd think, according to Google — this newer system cuts out the delay and manages to catch that kind of chicanery by checking addresses directly against Google's always-up-to-the-minute list. Google says it's seen a 20% increase in thwarted phishing attacks on the desktop front as a result of the new system and a 25% increase on Android, specifically.

So what's the catch? Well, the nature of this system does require the URLs you're pulling up to be sent to Google's servers for analysis — something the lower-level local-list system does not. Google says that data is "temporarily linked" to your Google account in order to "tailor" suggested protections "to your situation" if an attack is ever detected. But the company promises that "after a short period," the data is all anonymized and no longer connected to your account in any way. That certainly seems like no cause for privacy panic, at least on the surface, but use your own gauge, of course, and proceed only if you're comfortable.

Got it? Good. Now, let's move on to how you can find and enable Enhanced Safe Browsing for yourself, should your pretty little heart desire.

Enabling Chrome Enhanced Safe Browsing on the desktop

On the desktop front, Chrome's Enhanced Safe Browsing mode is ready and just a couple clicks away from being live and active in your shiny, happy browser.

No matter what kind of operating system you're using, follow these quick 'n' simple steps:

  1. Type chrome:settings into your browser's address bar.
  2. Click the line labeled "Security" (under the "Privacy and security" heading).
  3. Change the first setting on the page from "Standard protection," as it's probably set now, to "Enhanced protection."

And that's it: Now just make yourself a nice warm cup of cocoa, sip it with an exaggerated "ahh" sound for full effect, and bask in your newly enhanced browsing protection.

Before fully basking, though, think about whether you want to enable this same system on Android as well — 'cause that's totally separate, and doing it there requires a little more effort.

Enabling Chrome Enhanced Safe Browsing on Android

Chrome's Enhanced Safe Browsing mode technically came out for Android about a month ago — but for reasons best summed up as "because Google," the option doesn't seem to be visible and available for most users yet.

Not to fear, though, for there's an easy way to force it to appear:

  1. Open up the Chrome browser on your phone and type chrome:flags into the address bar. (Fair warning: This will take you into a panel of advanced browser options that isn't intended for typical-user use. If you poke around and do the wrong thing there, it could really mess up your browser's proper functioning. But so long as you follow these exact steps and do only what's listed below, you'll be fine. Promise!)
  2. Type safe browsing into the search box at the top of the screen that comes up.
  3. You should then see two separate options: "Safe Browsing Enhanced Protection on Android" and "Security Section on Android." Tap the box beneath each of those options and change its setting from "Default" to "Enabled."
  4. Tap the blue Relaunch button that pops up at the bottom of the screen.

And by golly, give yourself a pat on the back: You've just enabled the Enhanced Safe Browsing feature and made it available on your phone's browser. Now, all that's left to do is enable it:

  1. Open up Chrome's settings (by tapping the three-line menu icon in the browser's upper-right corner and selecting "Settings" from the menu that comes up).
  2. Tap the newly expanded Privacy and Security section, then select "Safe Browsing."
  3. Change the setting there from "Standard protection" to "Enhanced protection," then tap the back arrow in the upper-left corner of the screen three times to get back out.

And there ya have it: Your phone's browser is freshly fortified and extra-safe from the internet's many ghouls and virtual Busey goblins. Take a deep breath, try to get the image of that terrifying Busey monster of your head, and browse, browse, browse away — with even more flannel-reminiscent comfort than usual.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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