ExplainersPrivacy Tools

How To Select: A Privacy Browser

The browsers on your desktop and mobile devices are a primary way that websites, social media, analytics, and marketing companies track you. Browsers leak a lot of data about you: the websites you’ve visited, what you’ve searched, where you are, what device you’re using and what ads you click on. 

Most browser tracking drives ad tech – which leads to targeted ads and potentially, price discrimination. But data obtained from your browser can also lead to embarrassment, and in rare cases or if you are specifically targeted, an increase in financial, physical, or political risk. Learn more about the risks of online tracking here.

For these reasons  if you want to protect your privacy, you may need to upgrade or change your browser.

A New Browser?

Changing browsers can feel like a big deal. You spend so much time on websites and using web-based apps that your browser has become familiar and comfortable. Using a new browser feels strange, and the hurdle and hassle of learning where buttons are and how to do familiar tasks feels like an unnecessary cost.

But the functional differences between browsers  are minor, and so are the interface differences. With rare exceptions, web pages load and web apps work exactly the same way in any browser. The first day of a change is jarring, but after a week you won’t remember why you were so wary of making the change.

A browser switch does bring other challenges. Bookmarks are one, but most browsers can import bookmarks from most other browsers. If you use cross-platform bookmark syncing, and switch to your new browser in both desktop and mobile environments, you can still enjoy your bookmarks everywhere.

Browser extensions are the next complication you might face – at least if you have more than a few extensions in your current browser. Switching might be a good time to decide if you still need them all—often we install an extension to try it out or for one specific purpose but it then lingers in your browser even though you might not really need it. Some also provide functionality your new browser has built-in. 

For those extensions you do need in your new browser, you’ll have to seek and install those as required. This is a one time switching cost; but it’s also an opportunity to reconsider your extensions and make sure you’re only using trusted tools that you really need. (Extensions are their own privacy risk – as we’ll cover in a separate post.)

So do you need to change browsers? That depends on:

  1. Which browser you’re using now, 
  2. How it’s configured, and 
  3. How much privacy you want and need. 

We’ll consider each of these questions below, and then  recommend the best ones for different privacy needs.

Which Browser(s) Are You Using Now?

There are a lot of web browsers, but 80% of the desktop market is shared by only five:

  • Google Chrome – By far the world’s most popular browser, and (excepting Internet Explorer) by default, the least privacy-friendly. It can be argued that Google only built a browser so that they could gather user data, and both at its core and the feature level they are moving slower than all competitors to enable privacy. There are however many excellent extensions that are capable of adding some measures of privacy to Chrome.
  • Apple Safari – As the default browser on MacOS and iOS, Safari has always been a fast browser, and is increasingly becoming a more respectable privacy solution. Apple is also, broadly speaking, a privacy respecting company, with little economic incentive to track user behavior and build detailed personal profiles. Safari also supports extensions and there are many good privacy enhancing options available.
  • Microsoft Edge – The newest Microsoft Browser has won a lot of fans for performance, and for its easy approach to browser privacy that’s acceptable for many.
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer – About 5% of the world is still somehow using this obsolete browser, probably on a very insecure old operating system. This is the only browser that is unacceptable for anyone to use from a privacy perspective.
  • Mozilla FireFox – The original browser alternative has always had a privacy focus and has significantly strengthened these capabilities in recent years. Financial turmoil at the company adds risk, but for now, FireFox is still a viable choice. It’s based on Chromium and so almost all privacy enhancing extensions built for Chrome run here too.

The mobile market is slightly more fragmented, with the Microsoft browsers dropping away and a few Android browsers and others earning low single digital percentage user bases. Mobile browsing is further complicated by mobile OS’s – Apple only allows the Safari Webkit core to run on iOS, so even though there are ‘other browser options’ they’re all just skinned versions of Safari. 

How Much Privacy Do You Need?

When choosing any privacy software, we recommend first understanding your privacy needs and goals. Not everyone faces the same risks, or has the same priorities, and so we’ve defined different ‘levels of privacy’ to help you to find the right level and then make better choices in working to protect your privacy and security.

Which of these best describes you?

  • Basic Privacy – This level is for people who want to avoid the most common and egregious privacy and security risks, but prefer to minimize both the required daily effort and/or added technical complexity. In other words, this is the right level for someone who wants some privacy, but lacks either the time or technical skills for more advanced efforts.
  • Strong Privacy – This level is the target for people who need or want to go beyond the basics to extend and enhance their levels of protection against both common and more advanced threats everyone faces today. Strong is the recommended level for people who have higher privacy risks, either in terms of having access to confidential information, having fiduciary or other financial responsibilities, or who know they face specific threats from people or groups who may try to access their accounts or data.
  • Maximum Privacy – This level is for people that need or desire very high levels of privacy and security protection—enough to reduce risks against all but the most extreme adversaries. This is the right choice for people who have jobs or situations where it’s almost certain there will be attempts to access data or accounts, or by people who face clear personal threats.

NOTE: A longer and more detailed description of these privacy levels is available here.

Once you’ve decided what level of privacy and security is your goal, it’s possible to consider which browser, or browser configuration, is appropriate.

Browsers for Basic Privacy

We believe that Safari, Edge, FireFox, and even Chrome can provide basic privacy protection – but you’ll have to make sure a few settings are correctly set and some extensions are put into place.

Safari

Apple has placed a clear focus on privacy for several years, and that effort has included significant upgrades in the last few versions of Safari that have made a difference. By default, Safari has Intelligent Tracking Protection (ITP) which, since Safari 13.1, blocks third-party cookies by default. ITP also stops storing any cookies, or tracking data 7 days after the last interaction with a site, even if it’s a first-party cookie.

Apple’s upcoming iOS 14 will also upgrade Safari’s blocking capabilities. With the new update, Safari will block ad trackers and provide a report of what has been tracked. According to DuckDuckGo, the tracker blocker in Safari will be using DuckDuckGo list of known trackers as well as machine learning capabilities to identify new trackers.

Apple has also added support for Content Blockers – extensions that block additional tracking that is often built into web pages – for both MacOS and iOS. The simplest to use and a great choice for anyone (especially those who want the easiest technical experience) is DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Essentials.

For users who want more blocking and don’t mind a little more user interface effort, we recommend the use of Content Blockers on both platforms, including Better Blocker, 1Blocker, and MagicLasso (all of which are paid options available in the app store.) <links to app store>

Microsoft Edge

Edge, a relatively new Chromium-based browser from Microsoft, has three privacy profiles to choose from and sets users with the ‘Balanced’ profile as a default.

That profile blocks trackers from sites you haven’t visited, limits personalization, and blocks trackers that are known to be harmful, such as cryptominers and browser fingerprinters (which collect system and device data). On any given page, Edge shows you all the different trackers and other elements that are being blocked by the browser. The Verge looked at Edge’s Balanced set-up and found that it blocked many trackers on its own page, including Google.

This set-up is almost good enough for most people with privacy needs but it does, by design, miss ad trackers and allows some cookies so websites can remember whether you’ve logged into a page or not. The Strict profile blocks more on-page elements that are trying to track you or access your local storage. Using the Strict profile will even trigger ad-blocker notices on specific sites, because many ads include troublesome tracking code that tracking blockers stop.

You can also install DuckDuckGo’s Edge extension for a simpler and easier way to browse with minimal tracking. Another good tactic if you find the Strict mode creates issues on too many sites, is to use InPrivate browsing when visiting unfamiliar sites – any page opened during an InPrivate session automatically falls under the Strict’ category.

Chrome

Chrome, the most widely used browser is not very good for privacy, even for those with minimal privacy needs. By default, Chrome allows all trackers, ads, and third-party cookies—a comparison done last year found that Google accepted over 11,000 cookies requests after a week’s worth of browsing, something Firefox blocked by default (a browser we’ll touch on later). 

There are two major issues when it comes to Google Chrome.

  1. Chrome, as a browser, collects a lot of data on its users and, by default, lets other sites collect user and browser data. Here’s their privacy page, which details what’s collected.
  2. Chrome is owned by Google, a company that’s in the business of building user profiles to drive advertising revenue. One could argue Google only built Chrome to enhance and protect their advertising business.

It’s therefore not surprising that Chrome gives users fewer privacy options, and even their ‘Incognito Mode’ is weak on privacy, (something they’re currently facing a lawsuit for) especially when compared to Edge’s InPrivate Mode.

Chrome does offer an ‘Enhanced Protection’ feature you can turn on, which will defend you against malicious URLs, tell you if a password you’re using is risky, and alerts you to data breaches tied to your email address. This is a good option and recommended, but doesn’t change the overall privacy limitations of the browser.

On the positive side, Chrome’s does have a very large library of available extension and plug-ins. There are a ton of extensions that add strong tracker blocking to Chrome, as well as ad blocking and other privacy features.

With one or more tracker blocking extensions – we recommend DuckDuckGo, Disconnect, or for more advanced users Ghostery or uBlock Origin – we are comfortable that Chrome is an acceptable choice for users wanting basic privacy. Check out our other article on tracker blockers to learn more. But if a change is possible, we think Chrome users should strongly consider a switch to FireFox or Brave (both discussed below) as both are Chromium-based browsers (built upon the same foundation as Google Chrome) but offer superior privacy protection. 

Browsers For Strong Privacy

If you want or need Strong or Maximum (defined) privacy, we recommend that you think about your browser choice a little differently and understand that you’ll need to spend some more time configuring settings and installing, configuring, and using extensions.

Here’s what we recommend:

Skip Chrome. It leaks too much information and requires too much work for strong privacy— you’d need too many plug-ins, extensions, and settings changes.

Use Safari and Edge only if you install some protective extensions and change some of the settings. At this level we would either move past or augment DuckDuckGo’s extensions with something that has more aggressive filters and finer grain controls, like Ghostery or uBlock Origin.

Better yet, move to a privacy-focused browser like Brave or Firefox, and then use aggressive blocking settings and extensions. Both of these browsers are fairly impressive right “out of the box” in terms of default and tracking blocking, but they also support powerful extensions like Ghostery and uBlock Origin.

Firefox

Firefox comes with a lot of privacy by default. Their privacy settings (called Enhanced Tracking Protection) come in two modes, Standard and Strict. Standard will block most trackers but Firefox will limit some of this blocking if it detects whether or not a website will break or misbehave. Strict, on the other hand, will block all detected trackers. You can also customize some of these settings under the ‘Custom’ profile.

Privacy & Security Settings on Firefox (shown in Dark Mode)

You can also customize Firefox so it clears your browsing and cookie data when you end a session, or prevent it from ever remembering your browsing data. While Firefox’s tracking blocking will block some ads, you may want to download a third-party ad blocker to ensure all ads are blocked (although you’re likely to run into website issues).

With Firefox, you can see what’s blocked on any given page and toggle on or off its Enhanced Tracking Protection.

Brave

Brave’s default privacy settings are arguably the best, compared to any browser. It defaults you to a standard set of ad, tracking, and fingerprinting blocking. It also blocks cross-site cookies, upgrades your site to HTTPS whenever possible (for more secure browsing), and collects very little information from its users.

You can also see site-specific data on what’s being blocked and can even turn off Brave’s Shields if a website isn’t behaving properly. And because Brave is based on Chromium, most extensions that are available for Google are also available for Brave as well, meaning you can easily move from Google to Brave without sacrificing much of your personal experience using Google.

For a more complete overview of Brave, check out our article here.

Even just on their own, we like Firefox and Brave for additional security and tracking-blocking benefits. However, as we discussed earlier, the biggest hurdle here is switching your browser.

For Max Privacy

If you consider yourself a high-risk user and are very concerned with your information getting out to other companies, you may want even more privacy. For this profile, your best choice is to use Brave or Firefox, with strict privacy settings and additional extensions, like uBlock Origin or Privacy Badger, which has a lot of custom options available. With this level of privacy desired, don’t bother with Safari or Edge (Chrome shouldn’t even come to mind).

On Firefox, you can change your Privacy and Security settings from Standard to Strict or you can customize your privacy settings and block all cookies and tracking content from all windows, not just privacy windows. Here’s a sample set-up (from my personal Firefox browser).

  • Permanent private browsing is on. No search or browsing history is remembered.
  • Custom privacy settings are set. Tracking is blocked on all windows and all third-party cookies are blocked.
  • Privacy Extensions include: Adblock Plus for more comprehensive ad blocking and Blur Tracker Blocker (however, we’d recommend one of the other blockers we’ve mentioned in the article before).

However, Firefox still detects and blocks other trackers, but not nearly as much because there are two extensions that are already blocking elements. However, there is a trade-off. Many publications don’t allow users with ad blockers in their sites and with this set up, I always have to log onto my email and social media sites whenever I start my browser, which can be a pain. However, some sites actually work better. Youtube, for example, runs without ads, making viewing videos much easier.

On Brave, most trackers and ads are blocked by default but you can go even stricter. You can block embedded elements from social media sites (such as posts and log-in fields), specify how the browser blocks trackers, and change your default search engine (an option available in Firefox as well).

How Private Can Browsing Be?

Browsers weren’t built for privacy—HTML, JavaScript and related technologies have been bent into circles to enable all kinds of tracking and bad behavior. All browser manufacturers have done a lot of work, and made a lot of progress, in the past few years to make privacy a priority, and we’re all safer for it.

There is no completely privacy safe browsing. If you follow our ‘Basic’ recommendations above you’ll stop perhaps 50-60% of tracking activities (roughly speaking), and if you move up to Strong or better you may hit 80%. It’s almost impossible to know exactly, but evidence suggests even the best efforts do not stop all trackers, fingerprinting, or efforts to get information about you via browsing. Unless you’re going to work with clean devices and take very extreme measures, that’s the world we live in.

But this is still a very worthwhile effort. Maximizing protections via your browser choice, the settings you make, and the use of extensions however, can have a very big and positive impact. Stopping thousands of data points about you every day helps improve your privacy, and reduce your risk for personal, financial, and other damage. You can feel the progress in faster page loading, and less ads and on-screen distraction. 

And it just feels better knowing that you’ve protected yourself as much as is reasonably possible.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Show More
Back to top button