Browsers with the best (and worst) privacy
What are the qualifications for a privacy-focused browser? Mainly, users assume such programs are capable of fending off intrusive practices that threaten them. Thus, they should supply the building blocks used to construct barriers against things like device fingerprinting. Undoubtedly, protection against external threats is critical, and we treat malware-blocking capabilities as a bonus. However, these defense systems hold value only if the program itself is trustworthy. This article aims to review the most popular browsers and challenge their internal procedures.
Digital privacy and browsers
Browsers can take you anywhere on the internet. It fetches and renders information to display it neatly on your screen. Nowadays, you have a wide selection of programs ready to serve you. However, we largely confide in browsers without examining their internal operations.
When it comes to choosing the right browser for your privacy, it is essential to establish criteria:
- The people behind the browser. Most browsers belong to companies that also supply online services accessed via a browser. Thus, they are likely to integrate support for the services they provide.
- Privacy-oriented features. The availability of mechanisms meant for blocking phishing sites, trackers, or other invasive practices. Also, whether these options are active by default, or users need to enable them manually.
- Reported privacy risks. Has the browser gone under fire for implementing or supporting unsavory monitoring? Also, how stable is its operation and whether it has many reported vulnerabilities.
- A private browsing mode. Incognito mode or its equivalent is an advantage, although it might not achieve the advertised result.
- Back-end data exchange. It is essential to learn about data exchanges during general web browsing. In other words, what user data gets delivered to the back-end servers. Not all such activities constitute harmful or invasive behavior. However, certain transmissions stand close to the definition of privacy intrusion.
Back-end data transmissions: what is that?
All programs you use send data to their servers. Sometimes, it relates to diagnostic data, which helps identify repetitive issues or bugs. When it comes to browsers, they have the potential to retrieve a lot. Most of the practices are harmless, like determining the average page load time. Such information is telemetry data, and browsers automatically collect it during your sessions. It can consist of the following details:
- Browser version
- Device operating system
- Hardware configuration
- Information on crashes and errors
- Details on updates
- Info on automated processes like safe browsing modes
Such data collection practices are typically benign. As long as data is common to many users and cannot directly link to a specific client. Thus, the main question is whether the data browsers transmit to back-end servers can relate to an individual. Over time, specific identifiers paired with online activities could lead to users’ identities.
Keeping such back-end activities in mind, let’s review the top three best browsers and some less favorable ones.
The best choices for you
Starting on a positive note, we have Brave. Released in 2016, it is a browser highly focused on supporting private user experiences. It was the highest-ranked program in the research paper by Trinity College Dublin. The latter study investigated the back-end behavior of the six most popular browsers.
- Default settings do not allow tracking IP addresses over time.
- Brave does not share information about users’ visited websites with its back-end servers.
- It consists of a nifty ad blocker that prevents promotional content from overseeing your behavior.
- Brave is capable of encrypting the connection between you and websites that use HTTP instead of HTTPS.
- Since Brave ditches ads and ad trackers, users can notice slight speed boosts. In theory, the performance could be three times faster than on Google Chrome.
- Brave now offers its own search engine by default. You can always reverse this and return to another provider you prefer.
Less impressive facts
Brave does not get everything right. Or, in other words, it still raises suspicions or concerns in certain areas. For instance, Brave is aggressive when it comes to removing ads from websites. However, it did release its own ad network, allegedly free of unpleasant features of the typical digital ad ecosystem. It is a unique take on traditional advertising, even allowing ad viewers to earn money. According to reports, Brave rewards its users with cryptocurrency Basic Attention Tokens for sticking around.
Also, Brave has made some misguided decisions, like redirecting URLs from cryptocurrency companies to its affiliate links. Despite its baggage, it is one of the best tools for your privacy (if you can look past these mishaps). In comparison, they are smaller than most of the dishonorable deeds we have seen from other providers.
Tor has an undeniable advantage when it comes to privacy. It bounces your connection through multiple nodes, making it far more difficult to identify you. There are many .onion websites, further supporting the casual use of Tor. However, the unfortunate association with the dark web lingers. Thus, many link Tor with hackers or illegal activities.
However, it is not the reason Tor did not snatch a first place on this list. It is incredibly secure but might be too hardcore for the majority of internet users. After all, we value swift browsing, and Tor is not notorious for its speed. Instead, your activities will flow much slower than with, say, Brave or even Chrome.
- Tor prevents all sorts of exterior tracking activities currently dominating the digital world.
- Browser fingerprinting also does not affect Tor users (if you retain its default setup).
- The browser does not collect information about your activities and clears cookies after each session.
- Tor encrypts your traffic, which prevents entities from intercepting your activities.
Less impressive facts
Users who prioritize speed will struggle to cope with slow-paced Tor. After all, navigating your requests through three different nodes takes time.
Sadly, users of Tor might still be under suspicion of committing illegal activities. After all, authorities do monitor people’s actions on the dark web. You being a part of this ecosystem could be a red flag. Luckily, if you use Tor to protect your privacy, there is nothing to worry about.
Lastly, be cautious when making changes to Tor. You should know what each modification will do. If you carelessly toggle settings, you might compromise the privacy and security you expected.
3. Mozilla Firefox
Mozilla Firefox is a comfortable choice for anyone wanting to ditch their current program. It is a well-known tool, and its familiar design will be soothing. Over the years, Firefox has slowly but surely focused on protecting users’ privacy. Thus, it does contain some highly flexible privacy mechanisms.
Thus, Mozilla Firefox is the familiar option that retains some classic elements while responding to users’ calls for more privacy.
- Firefox offers a private browsing mode and the brilliant Enhanced Tracking Protection feature.
- The browser has blocked trackers and crypto mining attempts by default since 2019.
- Firefox also blocks fingerprinting from companies potentially involved in this activity.
- The browser is open-source and belongs to a non-profit organization.
Less impressive facts
Mozilla Firefox has a few skeletons in its closet. Some of the identifiers sent to back-end servers could work in favor of deanonymizing users. The issue is that the requests contain users’ IP addresses. As a result, the rough location is also available via metadata.
However, Firefox mentions such behavior in its documentation. And there are no indications that Mozilla attempts to link specific users to a particular behavior. Overall, if you can look through minor shortcomings, Firefox is a snug and secure option. After all, it had been the browser ahead of its pack when it counted. For instance, it was the first tool to suspend adverts from Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The not-so-good browsers
1. Google Chrome
Google Chrome is the most popular browser, with more than 3 billion people using it. With such popularity comes great responsibility. The browser industry leader always tries to reinvent the wheel, and some of these innovations are not exactly privacy-centric.
Before going further, let’s emphasize that Google is an advertising company, a gigantic one. Thus, its attempts to offer more private alternatives typically still sustain its massive ad ecosystem. In other words, for Google, limiting tracking and personalization would simply be bad business.
- The first browser that comes to mind. Over the years, millions of users have installed Google Chrome out of pure habit. It is the browser that makes sense and which people have used for years. And patterns are challenging to break, regardless of their flaws.
- Highly personalized experience (if you like that). For instance, ads on the Brave browser will typically mean very little to you. Why? Well, it does not have the profiling mechanisms Google has. Thus, if you like promotions tailored to your needs, Google Chrome is your best bet.
- Decent privacy settings. Google Chrome allows users to block third-party cookies and turn off ad personalization. Also, clients can manage certain practices like web activity tracking and location history.
Google Chrome has one factor working against it: its background. After all, Google fuels most of the online ad ecosystem. Thus, Google wants and, essentially, needs to know more about consumers. Its data-harvesting habits are frequently unhealthy, and the falsely-advertised Incognito made users feel more private than they were. As a result, it seems that even when Google tries to go private, it does so half-heartedly.
The final thought is that Google Chrome is a habit that most users should learn how to quit.
2. Microsoft Edge
The study by Trinity College Dublin named Microsoft Edge as one of the least private browsers available. Why? The research found that Edge uses specific user identifiers that might link online patterns to certain individuals. There are other concerning factors, like lack of flexibility in privacy settings. Let’s review the reasons why it might not be the best suited to preserve your digital identity.
- High-speed performance. The new and improved version of Microsoft Edge is much faster than you would expect. Thus, you might notice that websites load a little bit faster than usual.
- Transition to Chromium-based browser. After embracing Chromium, most of Microsoft Edge’s code became open-source.
The biggest concern surrounding Microsoft Edge is the data it transmits to its back-end servers. It appears that it sends data linked to the device hardware, which persists across fresh browser installs. Thus, such details help link different apps available on the same device.
However, Microsoft did fight back the accusations by stating that it mostly sends diagnostic data. Additionally, the tech giant claimed that each user has to agree to the sharing of diagnostic data. But some experts and users are still cautious about using Microsoft Edge.
Yandex quality is similar to Microsoft Edge. The research by Trinity College Dublin also labeled it as one of the least secure. The reasons for this are similar, but Yandex does have its shortcomings. For instance, it is a Russian-based freeware, which might cause some users to look the other way.
- Users praise its speed. One thing that Yandex gets right is the speed. Many clients claim that it supports high-speed operations.
- Customizable setup and access to Yandex service suite. You have broad options to personalize your layout. Users can also turn to services like Yandex Mail and Yandex Disk.
Privacy concerns similar to Microsoft Edge haunt Yandex. The Trinity College Dublin concluded Yandex as one of the browsers engaging in suspicious data transmissions. For one, it transfers persistent identifiers that also reveal users’ IP addresses.
Additionally, the researchers did not find options for turning such transmissions off. Furthermore, the browser might unnecessarily collect specific browsing data. For instance, the search autocomplete feature seemingly harvests more than it should. As a result, we would not recommend using Yandex.
Dozens of browsers are available right now. Some of them might sound completely outlandish, like Epic and Iridium. However, we have included the best three options you can choose (and three to avoid). If you care about your privacy, choose either Brave or Mozilla Firefox. To take a step further, we also recommend installing a VPN. A browser can only do so much to protect. Thus, boost your privacy and security by getting Atlas VPN.
Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.