This post was updated on May 3, 2021.
Your web browser is the vehicle that carries you around the Internet to your desired websites. As such, it knows precisely what sites you have visited, how long you spent browsing them, and what you clicked on (or almost clicked on). Anyone who has access to your web browser can have a window into your income, your political leanings, and even your sexual preferences.
This is why it’s so important to only use browsers you know will protect and improve your internet privacy. In this article, we explain how browsers capture so much information and which web browsers in 2021 are best at keeping your browsing history safe from data-hungry tech companies and advertisers
Further reading: Easy steps to improve your internet privacy
How you are tracked online
Before examining the impact your browser can have on your privacy, you need to understand how your online activity is monitored.
While having a company directly record your browsing history is a risk (see Google Chrome), the more common threats to your privacy come from online advertisers and third-party trackers. Similar to Google, advertisers and trackers want to record as much of your online browsing as possible. The more data they have, the better they can show you ads specifically tailored to you. The two tools they use to follow you around the Internet are device fingerprinting and cookies.
- Device fingerprinting is when a site looks at all the characteristics of your device (the make and model of your device, what browser you are using, what plugins you have installed, what timezone you are in, etc.) until it has enough information to identify and follow it. Your device share this information to optimize the websites you visit. For example, websites want to know if you’re using a laptop or a smartphone so that it can select the correct font size and screen resolution. This can be surprisingly accurate. To see if your device has an easily identifiable fingerprint, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick.
- Cookies, or HTTP cookies, are tiny data packets that websites or services plant on your browser while you’re on a website. These cookies differentiate your browsers from others, like a nametag.
The privacy risks of Chrome
Any discussion of privacy and Web browsers must begin with Google Chrome. It is, by far, the most popular Web browser. Chrome handles over 60 percent of web traffic. This is unfortunate because Google uses Chrome as a window to peer into every action you take online. Unless you modify your Google privacy settings, Chrome records every site you visit so Google can serve you targeted ads.
Even worse, Chrome does very little to block other advertisers and trackers from monitoring you with cookies or device fingerprinting. A Washington Post article reported Chrome gathers roughly 11,000 trackers in an average week. Do you want 11,000 pairs of eyes on you every time you do an Internet search?
However, you do not need to give away your personal data to access the Internet.
There are Internet browsers that do not record your every action and protect you from trackers. Switching from Chrome to one of the following browsers can drastically reduce the amount of data you are inadvertently sharing as you browse the Internet.
Further reading: Gmail’s privacy problem and why it matters
Best secure and privacy-first web browsers:
1. (tie) Brave
The Brave browser was designed to make privacy simple enough for everyone. It is an open source browser built on top of Chromium (an open source version of the Chrome browser), which means it’s easy for Chrome users to make the switch.
However, unlike Chrome, Brave does not collect any data about your online activity. Your data remains private and on your device.
Brave also makes blocking trackers easy. Instead of forcing users to decide which plugins and browser extensions they should download, Brave comes fully equipped. It automatically blocks all third-party and advertising cookies, and because HTTPS Everywhere is built-in, it ensures all your connections are securely HTTPS encrypted. Brave also features Fingerprinting Protection in the browser.
The company also has a social mission: to encourage websites not to rely on advertising based on tracking you around the Internet. Brave has introduced a system that allows you to reward creators and sites you visit directly.
Called Brave Rewards, it uses a utility token called a Basic Attention Token and enables you to anonymously reward the websites you visit most. Brave also has opt-in, privacy-preserving Brave Ads, and users who choose to view them earn 70% of the ad revenue, which they can then use to reward their favorite online creators.
1. (tie) Firefox
The open source Firefox is the third-most-popular browser on the Internet, behind Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari. Developed by Mozilla, the Firefox team has improved the browser’s privacy protections in recent years.
They have introduced advanced anti-fingerprinting and Enhanced Tracking Protection features this year, both of which make it much more difficult for third-party trackers to follow you around the Internet.
Unlike Brave, the standard Firefox does not automatically block advertisements. However, there are numerous browser extensions that you can download that will prevent advertisers from getting your information or showing you ads.
Or, if you primarily browse the Internet on your mobile device, Firefox Focus incorporates automatic ad blocking. (Focus was developed as an ad blocker for Safari, but was then transformed into a minimalistic privacy browser for Android users.)
3. Tor browser
As we have discussed elsewhere, Tor is the best option if privacy is your utmost concern. The Tor browser is based on Firefox, but it has been stripped down and specially calibrated to run on the Tor network.
When you use Tor, your traffic is encrypted three times and bounced between three Tor servers before it reaches your desired website. The encryption is handled in such a way that each server only has access to one set of instructions, so no server has access to both your IP address and the website you are visiting.
This setup makes it impossible for Tor to keep any records about your online activity, and every time you close your session, the browser deletes your cookie cache and browsing history. The browser itself is formatted to prevent fingerprinting, and it blocks all kinds of trackers.
4. DuckDuckGo (honorable mention)
Unlike the other browsers mentioned above, DuckDuckGo does not have a standalone desktop browser, which means it is only a solution if you are browsing the Internet on your smartphone or tablet. With the DuckDuckGo browser, your browsing history never leaves your device. Deleting your entire browsing history is as easy as tapping a single button.
It automatically blocks ads, stops third-party trackers, and ensures HTTPS encryption on all sites where that’s possible. One feature that does set it apart is the Privacy Grade it gives each site. This makes it easy for you to evaluate how much data each website collects from you, with and without DuckDuckGo’s protections, at a single glance.
The Web browser you choose can have a dramatic impact on your overall online privacy. By switching to one of the privacy-focused browsers in this article, you can protect your browsing history from the companies and trackers that want to monitor your every digital move.
The ProtonMail Team
You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.
We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.