Chances are your web browser is the most used application on your computer. For most of us, it’s where we work on documents using cloud-based applications, access our email, play games and socialise. That makes your browser a lynchpin in your online security. But it turns out not all browsers are the same. An academic in Ireland sought to determine the differences in some of the most popular browsers and learned that the most used browsers aren’t the most secure.
The research, Web Browser Privacy: What Do Browsers Say When They Phone Home?, examined the backend connections made by browsers while we’re online.
Professor Leith, who conducted the research looked at six browsers; Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Brave Browser, Microsoft Edge and Yandex Browser. He examined what happened with “phone home” services from the browsers under a number of typical conditions such as when typing a URL into the address bar, while the browser is sitting idle and when the browser is closed or restarted. He looked at network traffic and whether the connections were encrypted and if there was a persistent identifier that could be used to connect a user with its location.
Of the browsers he tested, only Brave with its default settings didn’t use identifiers that allowed tracking of IP address over time. Nor did it share the details of web pages visited with backend servers. In contrast, Chrome, Firefox and Safari all shared the details of webpages that were visited with backend servers. This is because of the way those browsers use autocomplete to fill in a URL as you type it into the address bar.
The remaining two browsers in the study, Microsoft Edge and Yandex were singled out for special attention. Both send persistent identifiers that can be used to link requests, associated IP addressed, and therefore your location potentially, to back end servers. Edge also sends the hardware UUID of the device to Microsoft while Yandex transmits a hashed hardware identifier to back end servers.
In short, based on this research, if privacy is your main concern, then Brave is probably a solid choice. And if you’re relying on your browser’s private or incognito mode, then you’re probably not as safe as you think.