There’s a new battleground in the browser wars: user privacy. Firefox just made its Enhanced Tracking Protection a default feature, Apple continues to pile privacy-focused features into its Safari browser, and people are more aware than ever before of the sort of information they can reveal every time they set a digital footprint on the web.
If you want to push back against online tracking, you’ve got several options to pick from when choosing a default browser. These are the browsers that put user privacy high on the list of their priorities.
You might know DuckDuckGo as the anti-Google search engine, but it’s also branched out to make its own mobile browsers for Android and iOS. Not only do they keep you better protected online, they give you plenty of information about what they’re blocking.
DuckDuckGo starts by enforcing encrypted HTTPS connections, when websites offer them, and then gives each page you visit a grade based on how aggressively it’s trying to mine your data.
It’s a good pick for getting maximum protection with minimal effort.
To keep you anonymized online, DuckDuckGo blocks tracking cookies that are able to identify you and your device, and even scans and ranks sites’ privacy policies. You can clear tabs and data automatically at the end of each session, or you can wipe this data manually with a single tap. You can even set a timer to automatically clear out your history after a period of inactivity.
The browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox do a very similar job, so you don’t have to abandon your favorite desktop browser to take advantage of DuckDuckGo’s tight privacy controls. Again, the extensions rank sites for their privacy features, and block attempts to track your activities online.
What really appeals about the DuckDuckGo apps and browser extensions is how simple they are to use. You don’t really need to do anything except install them, so it’s a good pick for getting maximum protection with minimal effort.
Ghostery (Android, iOS, browser extension)
Like DuckDuckGo’s mobile apps, the Ghostery browser tells you exactly which trackers it’s blocking, and how many monitoring tools each website has installed—if you find certain sites that are well-behaved, you can mark them as trusted with a tap.
Or, if you find a site that’s packed full of tracking technology, you can block every single bit of cookie technology on it (for commenting systems, media players and so on), even if the site might break as a result.
Ghostery also develops an extension that works with just about every desktop browser out there—again, you can view the trackers on each site you visit, then take appropriate action on them or let Ghostery decide and its AI smarts decide what needs blocking.
Ghostery’s tools are a little more in-depth and advanced than the ones offered by DuckDuckGo, so you might consider it if you want to take extra control over which trackers are blocked on which sites.
Tor Browser (Android, Windows, macOS)
Tor Browser stands for browsing “without tracking, surveillance, or censorship” and is worth a look if you want the ultimate in anonymized, tracker-free browsing—unless you’re on iOS, where it isn’t yet available.
The browser app for Android, Windows and macOS is actually part of a bigger project to keep internet browsing anonymous. The Tor Project routes your web navigation through a complex, encrypted network of relays managed by its community, making it much harder for anyone else to work out where you’re going on the web.
As well as this additional layer of anonymity, Tor Browser is super-strict on the sort of background scripts and tracking technologies sites are allowed to run. It also blocks fingerprinting, a method where advertisers attempt to recognize the unique characteristics of your device across multiple sites, even if they can’t tell exactly who you are.
At the end of each browsing session, everything gets wiped, including cookies left behind by sites and the browsing history inside the Tor Browser app itself. In other words, private browsing mode is the default.
Because of the extra encryption and anonymity measures, Tor Browser can run slightly slower than other browsers, but in terms of staying invisible on the web, it’s the best there is. It can even help you get online in countries where the internet is blocked or censored.
Brave (Android, iOS, Windows, macOS)
Brave is a project from Brendan Eich, once of Firefox developer Mozilla, and its mission includes both keeping you from being tracked on the web, and finding a better way to serve you advertisements. It’s a dichotomy that doesn’t fully fit together just yet.
There’s no doubt about the effectiveness of its tracker blocking technologies though. The browser apps block ads by default and put tight restrictions on the information sites can gather on you through cookies and tracking scripts.
You can block trackers, scripts, and fingerprinting technologies—where sites attempt to identify your particular device—individually, but unlike DuckDuckGo and Ghostery you don’t get a detailed breakdown of what’s been stopped.
Brave also tries to block phishing attempts over the web, and will force HTTPS encryption where it’s available. It’s a comprehensive package that strikes a well-judged balance between simplicity and power.
Time will tell whether Brave’s attempts to create a new privacy-respecting ad platform are successful, but it’s testing the idea of paying users to watch ads and splitting the revenue with content creators. You can also give micropayments to sites you like directly, though all of this is completely opt-in.
Firefox (Android, iOS, Windows, macOS)
As we mentioned at the start, Firefox now blocks third-party cookies by default—those are the bits of code left by advertisers that try to piece together what you’re doing across multiple sites to build up a more detailed picture of who you are.
It also gives you a ton of information on each website you visit regarding the trackers and cookies that pages have attempted to leave, and which ones Firefox has blocked. Permissions for access to your location and microphone can be easily managed as well.
All this is on desktop—the mobile apps haven’t quite caught up yet—but whichever platform you install Firefox on, you’ve got a raft of privacy-focused features to take advantage of. On mobile, you can again take control over tracker and cookie blocking, and clear out stored data every time you close down the app.
For even stricter tracker protection and ad blocking to boot, there’s Firefox Focus for Android and iOS. It’s a stripped-down version of the main browser, without all of the bells and whistles of the full Firefox, but if speed and privacy are your main priorities, it’s definitely worth a try.
The main Firefox apps for desktop and mobile hit the sweet spot as far as balancing privacy and convenience go: there’s plenty to please those who want to take more control over how their data is collected, but all the usual browser features (like extensions and password syncing) as well.
Safari (iOS, macOS)
Apple continues to add anti-tracking tech to Safari with each successive release on iOS and macOS, though this isn’t an option for your browser of choice if you’re on Windows or Android of course.
Safari has already declared war on third-party tracking cookies that try and connect the dots on your web activity across multiple sites, and also blocks device fingerprinting techniques that try and identify you from the way your phone or laptop is configured.
Those protections are going to get tightened up even further with the arrival of iOS 13 and macOS Catalina in the fall. The browser will even warn you when you try and use a password that’s too weak on a new website or service.
Safari also operates against the backdrop of Apple’s commitment to collect as little information about you as possible and to keep most of that information locked away on your device rather than on Apple’s servers.
Like most of Apple’s products, Safari is an obvious choice if you use a lot of other Apple products in your daily life—you can jump seamlessly between browsing on an iPhone and a Mac, for example.
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