I’m fascinated by public computers—whether found in a public library, university, or hotel business center. I try to spend at least a minute or two on one when I can spare it. It’s an amazing time we live in where these machines are so easily accessible; however, carrying around a tiny, always-online computer in my front pocket that makes Jetsonesque video calls anywhere at any time has spoiled me. So, it would be disingenuous to say I use a public computer for any reason other than analyzing the thought process of the admin who configured it.
What’s the default browser? What flavor of OS is installed? What did they forget to lock down? Mwahaha! Ever been greeted by the Blue Screen of Death at an ATM or arcade? Forget the inconvenience—that’s my version of spotting a narwhal. I’m snapping a picture of that.
My secret is out. Crawling public computers is my nerdy little guilty pleasure. But, in all my public PC promenades, the one thing that I’ve never come across is a pre-installed set of browser extensions, and this surprises me. Extensions, add-ons, plugins—whatever you choose to call them—have been around for more than a decade. They’re wildly popular, due to their security benefits and speed enhancements. They have plenty of utility. And, yet, they’re nowhere to be found on public computers.
I’m guessing this is because many browser extensions require manual interaction. In most cases you need to know how to use the extension in order to benefit from it. So, the best kind of browser extension for a kiosk is the kind that works automatically and silently. The extension shouldn’t distract the user. Ideally, a patron would tell his or her spouse, “The computers at the library just feel snappier and less cluttered than our computer at home,” without understanding the processes running silently in the background to provide them with that experience.
This article is Google Chrome-centric. My apologies in advance if this is not your favorite browser, however, nearly all of the listed extensions are compatible with all the major browsers.
One more disclaimer: as with any new piece of software, you should thoroughly test before deployment.
Wikiwand is an extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Although “encyclopedia” is half of the name, completely absent from Wikipedia is that visually brilliant, encyclopedic look. That is until now, thanks to a wave of the magic Wikiwand!
Wikiwand is no one-trick pony. After the cosmetic changes, the very next thing you’ll notice is that articles load much faster. And how about that left-hand navigation bar, which is now dynamic, highlighting the section currently on screen? Any of these three improvements on their own might be enough to consider the quick install, but the most useful feature is saved for last. Mouse over any word linking to another Wikipedia article for a brief summary in a pop-up display.
I recommend it for any patron-facing computer, as well as for personal use. Before we move on, it would be irresponsible not to note that WikiWand, unlike Wikipedia, is a private company. Wikiwand plans to monetize their site in the future with advertising. But, until that day comes, enjoy a sexier Wiki.
AdBlock Plus & Disconnect
The Internet in its current form is essentially unusable without some type of ad blocker. More than 40 million people have downloaded AdBlock for Chrome, so this isn’t exactly a secret.
What is, evidently, a secret is which ad blocker is the best. Doing a search for “AdBlock vs” returns a Googzillion™ results on the political differences between these offerings and approximately zero results on comparative performance.
AdBlock is no longer open-source, and it assigns a unique ID to every device where it is installed, for reasons it has yet to disclose.
AdBlock Plus, although remaining open-source, struck a deal with advertisers to allow unobtrusive, text-only ads to pass through, in exchange for a cut of the advertising revenue.
Ghostery was bought out by an advertising company and redefined its approach to privacy using vague statements like “striking a balance.” When it comes to eroding privacy, I would prefer to strike a blow.
(Incidentally, it’s a shame CatBlock is no longer supported. It was the April Fools’ Day joke based on AdBlock that turned advertisements into kitty pictures. That would have been a perfect recommendation for a Cat & Cardigan article.)
CatBlock at work
So, the most popular offerings are all apparently evil, but we need to pick one. (Are we choosing software here or electing a congressman? Ha!) OK, seriously, the correct answer is: pick whichever one you like—just make sure you install one. I use AdBlock Plus because I believe it’s the least likely of the three to end up as abandonware, and, also, because it is supported on more browsers and devices than the rest.
AdBlock Plus does a near perfect job of blocking the advertising junk you would normally see, but the Disconnect extension is needed to block the invisible trackers that collect your online activity. To put it another way: AdBlock Plus will cover the bill, but it’s up to Disconnect to leave the tip. A nice side effect of preventing unwanted junk from downloading in the background is that pages load faster. I recommend Disconnect as a companion to AdBlock Plus.
Honorable Mention: I want to mention one more ad blocker called Privacy Badger. It’s too new to recommend, but it looks very promising. Privacy Badger is made possible by contributions to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It’s based off of the open-source AdBlock Plus code, so it should at least be as stable as whatever version of ABP they forked. The EFF applied their own “algorithmic methods to decide what is and isn’t tracking.” The result? So far, it does a better job of preventing unwanted cookies than the competition, but falls marginally short everywhere else.
The Great Suspender
Do you have patrons who leave about a thousand tabs open in the browser? Most of those tabs will never be revisited and are just bogging down the computer.
The Great Suspender to the rescue!
Every open tab in the Chrome browser is a separate running task. Leaving those tabs open can consume loads of memory. When you run out of physical memory on a computer, you begin swapping virtual memory on the hard drive. This can be painfully slow.
The Great Suspender will automatically suspend any tab that has not been viewed after a user-defined period of time. The default is five minutes.
As you can see in the screenshot, revisiting a suspended page reloads (refreshes) it. This could annoy some patrons. So, where is the tipping point between annoyance and convenience? Have 4GB or fewer? Use The Great Suspender. Your patrons will, hopefully, appreciate it, compared to the alternative—slow browsing. But, if you have more than 4GB of RAM, you probably don’t need a tool like this.
The Great Suspender enables you to white-list domains, such as spotify.com, to make sure you can continue listening to your music in the background, while you view other sites. (Just keep in mind that white-listing too many domains can defeat the purpose.)
The Great Suspender is only available for Chrome. There are free alternatives for other browsers—but none I could find that were not without issue.
Some businesses and libraries are cautious about using the Google Chrome browser, due to security concerns. A browser is a window to the World (Wide Web), but a window also allows access in. This is especially the case with Google Chrome, due to extensions like Chrome Remote Desktop, which enables a remote user to have complete access to the computer through the browser. (Yikes!) This is something you absolutely do not want a patron installing.
Thankfully, Google provides excellent enterprise-friendly (and education-friendly) restrictions, by way of a Policy Template which can be managed with a Group Policy Editor. With this template, you can disable the remote desktop feature I just mentioned. You can also ban all extensions by default, and then choose to white-list only the extensions you like—perhaps the ones listed in this article.
You can view a full list of available policies and descriptions here.
• Force Browser Guest Mode
• Disable AutoFill
• Disable the “Proceed Anyway” button when an unsafe website is detected
• Create a “Managed Bookmarks” list that cannot be edited
• Disable changing the homepage or search provider
• Disable storing passwords or prevent displaying stored passwords
• And there are some accessibility features that can be enabled, such as spoken feedback, large cursor, high contrast mode, and screen magnifier
Chrome policies can be enabled locally or deployed to multiple computers, if they are in a domain environment. Visit the “Setup Chrome for Work and Education” page to get started.
If you haven’t guessed already, this last recommendation on our list is a bit on the advanced side. If you’ve never worked with Group Policy before, seek out an expert before pushing into production.
Jay Wilcurt is the IT something-or-other at Evanced Solutions.