Imagine that your browser is the surfboard that you use to surf the World Wide Web. Just like how a surfboard allows you to cruise and glide from one point to another, your web browser also ferries you around to different websites you want to visit.
Because of this, your web browser has precise knowledge on what sites you have visited, what content you usually search for, and how long you usually stay browsing a particular website. It also retains sensitive personal information like login credentials, auto-fill information, bank accounts, and even your political leanings and sexual preferences.
It only makes sense that you’d want to keep your personal browser as secure as it can be with all the information it has stored. But how exactly do you make sure that the browser you’re using is secure? What security features and privacy policies should you consider when looking for the safest browser to use? In this guide, we will take a closer look at why it is important to use a secure browser, and why “private” or “incognito” just doesn’t cut it when it comes to security and privacy.
Browsers, advertising agencies, and third-party trackers use two tools to monitor you when you’re surfing the web – cookies and device fingerprinting.
Cookies (a.k.a HTTP cookies) are used by websites or services to differentiate your browser from others, much like how a nametag works. They are tiny data packets planted on your browser while you’re browsing a particular site.
Digital Fingerprinting, on the other hand, is when websites take a peek at your device’s characteristics until they have enough data to identify and follow you. This includes the make and model of your device, your browser, plugins you have installed, and even the time zone you are currently in. This method can be surprisingly accurate, so you may want to check if your device’s fingerprint can be easily identified.
Now that you’re aware of how you can be tracked online, what are the other factors you should think about before you choose a browser to use?
• Online activity logging – In 2019, A Washington Post article reported that Google Chrome, the most popular web browser that handles over 60 percent of web traffic, gathers an estimate of 11, 000 trackers in an average week. That’s 11,000 pairs of eyes peeking at your activities every time you’re on the net. Online activity recording is usually done to create targeted ads, and although this isn’t really considered a threat it can be considered a breach of your privacy.
• Sensitive data vulnerability – Have you given your browser special permission to store sensitive data (i.e. login credentials, auto-fill information, bank accounts, etc.)? If you did, like most Internet users, you’re at risk of having your data stolen when your browser becomes compromised. Hackers will have access to sensitive personal information and the risk of falling prey to fraudulent activities significantly doubles.
• Software weak spots – A poorly configured browser and some programming errors are weak spots that may eventually become access points for hackers to steal your data.
• Risky browser extensions – Browser extensions are notorious for sometimes being tools of cybercriminals to gain access and compromise your device. In one incident, hackers were able to infiltrate the Google Chrome Web Store after getting hold of a developer’s credentials via a phishing email. Cybercriminals were able to hijack various extension programs and cause harm to thousands of users even before the developers realized what has happened to their program.
Secure Browsers for Your Privacy and Safety
There are two main factors you should always look at when choosing a secure browser to use – Security and Privacy.
When talking about privacy, always consider how much data the browser is collecting about you and who or where they share this data with. For security, make sure that your browser gives solid protection from online exploits, vulnerabilities, and hackers.
Best Secure and Privacy-first Browsers
Please keep in mind that opinions about browser privacy and security will always differ. Although this article discusses and touts some browsers as the best when it comes to security and privacy, they are, by no means, the be-all and end-all of secure browsers. Instead, think of this as a guide to help you choose which browser is the best fit for your unique needs.
1) Firefox (Newest version modified and tweaked for privacy)
Let’s start the list with a browser that we’re all familiar with. Mozilla Firefox is one of the top three popular browsers on the net, just behind Chrome and Safari.
Recently, Firefox developers have improved their browser’s privacy protection features. Some of these improvements include an upgraded version of anti- digital fingerprinting and an enhanced version of online tracking protection features. Both these recent improvements make it a lot harder for trackers to keep tabs on your movement on the net. With the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, you can be sure that your data is not sold to third parties (unlike other corporate giants), in fact, the developers of Firefox go beyond their way to protect you and your activities from said third parties.
One feature you’ll really enjoy with Firefox is that almost everything can be customized according to your needs – from blocking trackers to hiding your location. You can rest easy knowing that Firefox will never share your location without your consent.
When you use Firefox’s “incognito” mode, your login information, cookies, and browsing history are erased as soon as you log off. It also blocks all online trackers that try to latch on to your connection, and it goes one step further by cleaning up data-hungry sites such as Facebook.
Keep in mind, however, that the only way to truly protect yourself is to use a VPN with Firefox (or any browser for that matter) whenever you surf the net.
2) Tor (The Onion Router) Browser
If privacy and anonymity are your top priorities, then Tor is your best bet. A Firefox based browser, Tor has basically the same source but has been tweaked to be utilized on the Tor network.
On the Tor browser, your (encrypted) traffic is routed through at least three nodes before landing on the website you want to go to. Each node can only access one part of the encryption, meaning not one of the three servers have direct access to your originating IP address and the site you want to visit. With this setup, the browser has no way of keeping track of your online activities. Your cookie cache and browsing history are deleted every time you close your browser, and the browser is specially formatted to block trackers and prevent digital fingerprinting.
Another factor to consider before using the Tor browser is the way it affects your connection speed. Because it runs through the Tor network and your encrypted traffic goes through three different nodes before it reaches the site you want to access, Tor can significantly slow down your connection speed. If you stream video or music files heavily or play online games most of the time then perhaps Tor is not the best option for you.
3) Brave Browser
If you rely heavily on Google Chrome but are looking to switch to a more secure version then you might want to consider Brave. Brave is an open-source browser based on Chromium – an open-source version of the Google Chrome browser.
Don’t be alarmed, though! Just because it is based on Google Chrome doesn’t mean it also stores data about your online activities. You also don’t have to worry about blocking trackers as Brave has made this process easy. With other browsers, users are asked to choose which plugins and extensions they should download. Brave, however, comes fully equipped with its own set. It can automatically block all advertising and third-party cookies and ensures all your connections are HTTPS encrypted since HTTPS everywhere is already built-in. You also get fingerprinting protection when you use this browser.
One notable thing about Brave is how it encourages websites not to rely on advertisements based on tracking users on the Internet. Brave has developed a system that allows users to reward creators and websites they visit often.
Recently, however, Brave has received online criticism due to the launch of its own ad program despite offering “ad blocking” features. Some users have called this move hypocritical for a browser marketing itself as a “privacy” browser.
4) Iridium Browser
Like Brave, Iridium is also a secure browser based on Chromium. If you are looking for a secure browser that supports Chrome extensions, then you might want to give Iridium a try. This browser supports Windows, macOS, and Linux, but not Android and iOS.
According to Iridium’s official website, the browser prevents the automatic transmission of partial queries, metrics to central services, and keywords unless given permission by the user. The browser claims that it offers several privacy and security upgrades over Google Chrome, as well as regular updates and releases.
5) DuckDuckGo Browser
DuckDuckGo is a little different from all the other browsers we have previously mentioned. How so? There is no available desktop browser for DuckDuckGo, meaning you can only utilize this particular browser on your mobile phone or your tablet. Thankfully, it supports both iOS and Android.
With this browser, you can be sure that your browsing history is safe from prying eyes. If you want to delete your browsing history, simply tap a single button and voila! Your browsing history is… history! Much like the other browsers mentioned on this guide, DuckDuckGo also blocks trackers, provides HTTPS encryption for all sites, and automatically blocks ads.
A very interesting feature of DuckDuckGo that you won’t find on other browsers is the “Privacy Grade” it awards every site you visit. This feature allows users to evaluate the amount of data the websites collect from them, whether or not they are under DuckDuckGo’s protection.
The Dangers of “Incognito Browsing” and Why Using a VPN is Still the Way to Go
A lot of people foster the false notion that “private” or “incognito” browsing is synonymous to secure browsing.
What actually happens when you use “incognito” mode? You are simply stopping your browser from saving your browsing history, passwords, and cookies, but this doesn’t really make anything “private”. Why, you ask? First, your ISP can still see whatever websites you visit. This poses a risk because ISPs have been given permission to keep track of their clients’ online activities and hand over this information to third parties or authorities. Second, your originating IP address and location are still very much exposed to everyone (sites, trackers, and ads) online. Having your originating IP address and location exposed makes you a very easy target for tracking and identification. Remember that a unique IP address is assigned to your device, which links back to your identity through your ISP.
So how do we solve this problem? As mentioned earlier, it isn’t enough for you to simply rely on the protection afforded to you by a secure browser. Any expert would strongly recommend coupling your secure browser with a solid VPN service. Surfing the net with a secure browser and a VPN offers several benefits.
• Aside from the encryption provided by your secure browser, a VPN also encrypts your Internet traffic making it next to impossible for your ISP to take a peep at what you’re doing online. If they really wanted to see your online activities, your ISP would have to spend an extra amount of effort and resources to decrypt your internet traffic.
• Connecting to a VPN server hides your originating IP address and location. Instead, the IP address and location of the server you choose to connect to will replace your original one making it appear that you are anywhere around the world except your original location.
• VPN services allow you to bypass some censorships and access geo-restricted content, like streaming Netflix from anywhere around the globe.