Your web browser knows a lot about you, and tells the sites you visit a lot about you as well — if you let it. We’ve talked about which browsers are best at ad-blocking, but in this guide, we’re going to focus on the browsers that you’ll want to use to better conceal everything you’re up to from all the advertisers that want to track your digital life.
Whether your preferred browser is Chrome or Firefox, you have a few options to help you browse more securely — assuming, that is, you’re ready to give up on the version everyone else uses and try something new. Here are some browsers worth trying out.
This standalone browser for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android is based on Chromium — which means it’ll feel pretty familiar already if you’re a Chrome fan. Moving over to Brave pulls you mostly out of Google’s ecosystem, first and foremost, so you can breathe a little easier knowing that you aren’t sending copious amounts of data to Google via your logged-in account.
More importantly, Brave’s default settings are great for people who want more data privacy but don’t want to actually learn how to get it — or figure out all the extensions they’d need to install to reduce tracking in their favourite browsers. By default, Brave blocks all advertising and third-party tracking, and its built-in HTTPS Everywhere feature ensures you’re always connecting to the most secure version of the website you’re browsing (if applicable).
You’re also welcome to opt in to advertising (that doesn’t track you or collect your information) if you’d like to reward your favourite websites’ creators for their work. While it might seem odd for a privacy-focused browser to also have an advertising setup of its own, the move seems like a reasonable compromise that balances privacy and convenience against the financial realities content creators face.
Tor is an excellent option if you’re looking to preserve your anonymity and privacy from the sites you visit, and fight the good fight against malicious tracking cookies and ads. For those unfamiliar, Tor routes your traffic across a series of relays designed to keep your real identity and computer as anonymous as possible. It’s not perfect, and it certainly has its drawbacks, but if anonymity is your end goal, the Tor Browser is a great way to go.
The Tor Browser is based on Firefox Quantum, is open-source, and comes preconfigured to access the Tor network. The vast majority of built-in plugins and services have been disabled or stripped out, and it’s important that you leave them that way, or else data you mean to keep private can leak to the sites you’re visiting. Otherwise, Tor blocks all third-party trackers, clears cookies and histories when you close the browser, and tries to make all browser users look identical to thwart any kind of advertising-related fingerprinting.
Tor is available for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android, and you can even get portable versions to use when you need to access the web securely and safely on an untrusted system. That said, Tor is designed for physical and digital anonymity, not security and encryption. What you do while you’re using it may give away that anonymity (sending emails, logging on to web services, etc), and while communications inside the Tor network are encrypted, as soon as you leave the network, your data is in the clear (if it’s not encrypted another way.)
Good ol’ Firefox. If you’ve been using the web for any reasonable length of time, you’ve surely heard of Mozilla’s big Chrome competitor — though, oddly enough, it’s Google itself that currently supplies a significant amount of the nonprofit’s funding.
History lesson aside, Firefox Quantum also comes with a number of privacy-enhancing features built directly into the browser. By default, the browser’s Enhanced Tracking Protection blocks third-party tracking cookies based on Disconnect’s lists, and the browser now comes with an anti-fingerprinting feature to make it harder for advertising companies to build a profile around your habit. There’s also an anti-cryptomining feature, in case you’re worried that the sites you’re visiting are harvesting your system’s resources to make meager profits.
By default, the browser does not block advertising, but Mozilla has no problem recommending Firefox extensions that can help you accomplish that. You should also feel inspired reading Mozilla’s data-collection policies — and use the very techniques it recommends for turning off any and all data collection in your Firefox browser, innocent as it might be. And if you’re a big Facebook fan, Mozilla is more than happy to help you reduce how the social network tracks what you’re up to via a handy Firefox extension.
For mobile browsing, we recommend checking out Firefox Focus, a more stripped-down and privacy-centric version of Firefox.
This Android- and iOS-only browser packs in the privacy features: blocking ads, killing third-party trackers, forcing more secure HTTPS connections where possible, and evaluating the privacy characteristics of every website you visit with a special letter grade. If you’re seeing a big fat “F,” it might be time to move on to a site that cares more about data collection.
We especially like the little flame icon in the bottom-center of the browser. Tap it, and you’ll be asked if you want to clear all of your tabs and data. Confirm by tapping the option again, and everything you’ve done on the mobile browser is erased. It’s an incredibly quick and easy way to clear your tracks and ensure the browser isn’t storing any data internally that you don’t want it to have. If you’re feeling lazy, you can also set the browser to automatically clear all of your data each time you restart the app.
Alternatively: Tweak Chrome or Firefox for Privacy
If you’re not terribly keen on the idea of downloading a brand new browser, moving all of your bookmarks, extensions, and other data over to it, and starting from scratch, don’t worry — you can always just tweak Firefox or Chrome to be the browser you want it to be. For example:
Tell your preferred browser to start in incognito or private mode.
Enable any bonus features your browser might have, but isn’t running by default, to keep your data safer.
Install extensions that can help you protect your privacy.
Use an ad-blocker, like AdBlock Plus.
Automatically clear your cache and history when you shut down your browser.
This article was originally published on 19/2/14. It was updated on 19/8/19 with newer recommendations and more relevant information.