Deleting Your Way to Better Security

All software has bugs. Therefore, the less software you have, the fewer bugs you have. In other words, the fewer applications and plugins you have installed, the fewer the opportunities there are for your computer or smartphone to be hacked. It’s a mathematical certainty. In the cybersecurity realm, we call this “reducing your attack surface”. Complexity is the enemy of security. Increasing the functions and features of any device necessarily adds more complexity. For each cool new thing my device can do, there will also be new interactions with all the other things it could already do, too. It’s not a linear thing – it’s exponential. Very often it’s those unforeseen interactions that create vulnerabilities.

How to Reduce Your Attack Surface

Thankfully, the converse is also true: for every application or plugin you remove, you can remove several vulnerabilities and cut off multiple avenues of attack. How many applications have you installed on a whim, just because they were free? How about companion apps for products you bought that you don’t even own any more? How often have you installed an app for some service when you could just use the web app? What about software that came with your PC that you’ve never used?

These applications also take up space on your hard drive. If these apps or plugins are set to run on startup, they’re also consuming other resources. And of course, each piece of software you install is potentially harvesting and sharing personal information, as well. So let’s clean things up. And remember that in most cases, you can re-download and reinstall applications if you change your mind. That said, before you delete anything, just to be safe, I would be sure you make a backup of your computer, iPhone or Android device (which you should be doing on a regular basis).

Delete Computer Applications

Take an inventory of all the applications you have installed. It’s not hard to find the list, but it can be tricky to figure out if you need/want a particular app. You may not know it by name. So if you have any doubts, look it up online before you delete it.

On Mac, you can just open up your Applications folder and see what’s in there. In the Finder, click the “Go” menu and select “Applications” (or just type Shift-Command-A). I would use the List view (View menu, then “as List”), so you can see when the applications was last “modified” (which should be the last time it was updated). You might start by sorting on that column to find the old crufty stuff you probably forgot you had. Also, any app that is no longer receiving updates is a security problem waiting to happen. (You might need to launch the app to trigger an update request.)

In most cases, on a Mac you can simply drag an Application to the Trash to uninstall it. Some apps require you to run a dedicated uninstaller application (I’m looking at you, Adobe). In those cases, there’s often a folder with the application that contains the uninstaller. Even so, some apps leave little bits behind. AppCleaner is a nice, free Mac app that will help to get those, too.

On a Windows PC, open Settings and search for “remove” and then select “Add or remove programs”. Like on the Mac, I would start by sorting based on “install date”. The older an app is, the more you should consider removing it. Windows apps often have cryptic names – look up anything you’re not sure of. Then, to uninstall the app, click once on the app to select it. This should reveal the “Uninstall” button. Click that and confirm that you want to remove it. This may launch a dedicated, app-specific uninstaller. If so, just follow the instructions there to complete the removal process.

Note that while you can uninstall Apple or Windows apps, they often get reinstalled when you upgrade to a new major version of the OS.

Delete Mobile Apps

Thankfully, uninstalling mobile apps is a pretty straightforward process. On an iPhone or iPad, you can swipe through all your screens and tap into all your folders to see what’s there. When you find an app you want to remove, tap and hold the app’s icon. You’ll see a pop-up menu which will give you the option to “Remove app”. Or, if you want to delete a bunch of apps, you can select “Edit home screen”. This will cause all the apps to jiggle. For any app you want to delete, click the “-” (minus) button at the corner of the jiggling app. When you’re done, click the “Done” button at the upper right corner of the screen.

On Android, open Settings and select “Apps”. Find the app you want to delete, tap it, then click “uninstall”. Or you can delete it using the Google Play Store. Once in the Play Store, click the profile icon at the top right. Then tap “Manage apps & devices”, and then “Manage”. Find the app you want to delete, tap it, then click “uninstall”.

Again, you may find that Apple or Google apps will be reinstalled after a major OS update.

Delete Browser Plugins

Browser plugins are little pieces of software that enhance your web surfing experience in some way. While these little scripts might seem harmless, they can actually suffer from nasty security vulnerabilities and have horrid privacy implications. Unless you really need it, I would uninstall most browser plugins. Some browsers allow you to disable a plugin – you can start by doing that. Work without the plugin for a couple weeks or so and see how it goes. If you can live without it, then fully delete it. You can find instructions here for Chrome, Edge, Safari, and Firefox. (You should be using a privacy-respecting browser – click here for more info.)

There are a handful of plugins that I highly recommend you do install to improve your privacy. These include uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, and DuckDuckGo. Also, if you’re using a password manager (and you should be), you’re going to want to install the corresponding browser plugin so it can fill in your passwords for you. But I would avoid just about all other plugins – certainly shopping and social media plugins.

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