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Protecting Privacy in Your Browser

Updated March 25th to reflect changes in Safari’s default privacy offerings.

Browsers are the window to much of the internet. It’s how we connect to all kinds of data and services on desktop computers and mobile devices. 

But the technologies that make browsers possible and make them work were not created with privacy in mind. As a result, browsers (and the web pages, web apps, and associated browser extensions they access) have been exploited to enable a lot of privacy theft.

Of course, you can’t stop browsing — but you can make choices that protect your privacy while browsing. There are two ways you can do that; fortify your current browser or switch to a new browser with better core privacy protections. First, let’s assess the privacy capabilities of modern browsers and then look at each of the options mentioned above.

The Current Browser Landscape

Default browsers, like most default software, are free and adequate. But since Internet Explorer became the first default browser, they haven’t had the best privacy protections or options available.

Today’s default browsers – Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Edge, are vastly better than their predecessors.

Safari, famously employs Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP), which is on by default. ITP continues to update and evolve but it originally limited how third-party cookies could track users and stopped first-party cookies from tracking users twenty-four hours after they navigated away from the original site. The most recent update, ITP 2.3, also limits some URL-based tracking, which websites were using to get around previous versions of ITP.

Update: As of March 2020, Safari’s latest update now automatically blocks all third party cookies by default, a major improvement in the privacy the browser offers, making it an even more attractive option.

Microsoft Edge on the other hand, recently updated and is now based on Chromium, meaning it is compatible with Chrome extensions. The browser revamped its privacy features and offers three different privacy profiles — basic, balanced, and strict — for users to choose from, a significant and easy-to-understand privacy upgrade.

But we wouldn’t consider either of these “privacy browsers,” a designation we reserve for browsers that have market-leading levels of default privacy protection and even more privacy-protecting features and optional support.

Let’s not forget Google’s Chrome browser. It is extremely popular, but it is certainly not a privacy browser. In fact it’s more accurately described as an anti-privacy browser given that it shares certain data with Google at a fairly low level. Although it does support some privacy-enhancing extensions, it is becoming less hospitable to extension developers and instead enables more underlying privacy risk.

Fortifying Your Current Browser

Using Settings to Enhance Privacy

If you’re using Safari or Edge or even Chrome, there are some settings and options you can enable to better protect yourself and your privacy. You can block third-party (or even first party cookies), forget your browsing and history when you close the browser, and you can set your browser to delete cookie and session data when you close it to limit marketing and social media tracking. If your browser has an option to block tracking and fingerprinting, make sure that’s turned on as well.

Install privacy extensions

Extensions add capabilities and can change the way data is treated in any browser. The most vital of these, for privacy’s sake, are tracker blockers and ad blockers (and those that do both). These filter out some (not all, important if you want extreme privacy in your browsing) of the invasive code that is embedded in the websites and web apps you visit via your browser.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of tracker blockers, but only a handful that we would recommend to most users. We’d recommend most people start with the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials – it’s the simplest and has the fewest troublesome side effects. For those who can handle a few more technical options and perhaps a few more hiccups in their browsing – we’d suggest PrivacyBadger, Ghostery, or Disconnect. For maximum control (and maximum effort in managing the extension) we recommend uBlock Origin.

Switch to a Privacy Browser

The alternative to beefing up the privacy of your existing browser is to switch to a browser that is privacy-centric at its core.

Many people are reluctant to change browsers, but the change can be pretty simple. Your bookmarks can be imported, and fundamentally they all work exactly the same way – once you get used to a few new button locations, the change is a breeze. 

The other inconvenience of a new browser is the loss of all those memorized logins and passwords. There’s not much you can do about this one-time cost; but we will say that you should be using a password manager anyway. If you take this opportunity to install one (most can be used directly as browser extensions), load it up, and use that to log in, you’ll get an even bigger privacy and security boost out of your browser upgrade. 

The Privacy Browsers

There are two good options we recommend if you’re looking for a privacy-centric browser. Our favorite is Brave, but Firefox is a reasonable option too.

Brave

The first thing to know is that Brave is an excellent browser, even before you start thinking about privacy. It’s based on Google’s Chromium codebase – but there have been significant modifications made to enhance security, privacy, and speed – including removal of the low level Google data sharing in the Chromium code. The good news is that Chrome extensions are compatible with Brave, and you can import your bookmarks and other settings from Safari or Chrome. Brave has an attractive and intuitive user interface, clear settings, and tons of excellent reviews (take a look here).

On the privacy front, Brave really shines. Brave blocks many trackers, fingerprinting (which they call ‘device recognition’), third-party cookies, and it has a powerful ad-blocker built in (ads often carry a ton of tracking code). It auto-upgrades you to an HTTPS connection and has a real ‘private browsing’ mode that encrypts your traffic. Beyond the strong default privacy features, it gives you options to dial up the privacy even further either with new defaults and by giving you options on a site-by-site basis. It even lets you open up a Tor browsing window for hard-core private browsing.

Firefox

Firefox always had a strong browser, and over the past few years they’ve become very privacy focused. FireFox has tracker blocking, stops third-party cookies, and recently enabled DoH by default for US users, which encrypts certain browsing data. Via its settings, you can also increase the privacy and security of the browser by blocking fingerprinting and cryptominers, ensuring the browser deletes all browsing history when it’s closed and toggling permissions such as location, camera, and microphone use on a site-by-site basis.

Don’t Browse Without Protection

A huge percentage of your internet activity takes place in your browser. As a result, it’s likely the #1 or #2 place that your private data is tracked and grabbed (with the apps on your phone being the other) Without either fortifying your browser via settings and extensions, or switching to a privacy browser where more security is enabled by default, too many can learn about where you go, what you look at, what you buy, who you communicate with, and indirectly how to think, feel, believe, and act. 

Privacy protected browsing helps you avoid advertisers knowing so much that they can retarget you, attempt to manipulate you, possibly shift the prices you’re offered or even take offers away from you entirely. Beyond that, effective browser privacy can help you to avoid embarrassing data leaks, revealing your location in ways that create physical risk, or even make you the target of political oppression. 

In other words, upgrading your browser privacy is worth the effort.    

It’s easy to forget that most of your internet activity, when it’s done on a laptop, phone, or tablet, is done on a browser. If you haven’t taken the time or steps to keep your privacy, then you’re leaving a huge window open for companies, your ISP, social media, trackers, and advertisers to freely collect your browsing, location, payment info, and search history and build countless profiles on you. That’s how ads follow you around, how social media can influence your decisions, and how Google knows what ad to serve you whenever you search for something.

By making your browser more private, by changing your settings or changing your browser, you’re making a big difference in your online privacy.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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