I've mentioned before that you probably need a new browser. With the most popular browsers being developed by some of the largest big-tech companies, you should expect that they are collecting your data. Don't get it twisted; big-tech companies never give you anything for free! If it seems like they are then you can safely assume they are mining so much data from that product or service that they know you better than your partner, parents, and friends!
A Brief Disclaimer About Browsers
Browsers all have an engine at their core. This engine does not have to be unique to a browser either as MANY browsers are built around Chromium which uses the Blink engine. Browser engines are incredibly complex to build and, as such, there aren't new ones built very often. There are 3 main engines used in most browsers today:
- Webkit - Apple created Webkit by forking the KHTML engine of the popular Linux desktop environment KDE. Safari uses Webkit and Google Chrome used Webkit in the earlier days. Opera Mini for iOS uses Webkit as well, but other Opera variants use Blink.
- Blink - This engine was forked from Webkit by Google and is included in every Chromium-based browser. That said, you'll find Blink at the core of the most browsers and every Electron-based app.
- Gecko - Developed by Mozilla, you'll find this engine at the core of Firefox, Thunderbird (email client), and the SeaMonkey Internet suite. There is a fork of Gecko called Goanna that can be found at the core of the Pale Moon browser.
Here is the part where some of you might be saying, "Ok, nerd! Why do I care about this techie jargon?" You don't have to care that much. The main takeaway here is that Blink is the most commonly used/most popular engine being that it is in MANY browsers including Chrome which is THE most popular browser in the world. Why does that matter? Well, that means that most web developers out there are using Chrome (or at least some Chromium-based browser) to develop their sites and apps. The experience you will get from a browser using Blink will sometimes be better than when you use a browser-based on a different engine solely because the developers were creating their app/site while verifying they got the expected behavior and look in a browser using Blink. It's not a huge deal, but it is worth considering when choosing a browser (especially if you plan to use that browser for development).
Get Rid of Your Browser if You Use One of These
- Microsoft Edge
- Microsoft Internet Explorer
- Apple Safari
- Google Chrome
- Mozilla Firefox
Several studies have been conducted on the topic of browser privacy and security, and they all point to the fact that the most popular browsers aren't the most secure and "phone home" too often. Most of the time, this sort of communication with the company's servers is to sync your settings. That's convenient, isn't it? Well, most of the time that "sync" feature comes at the cost of your privacy and security!
The autocomplete feature in most of these popular browsers transmit the details of visited sites in real-time as you are typing the URLs. These default settings, however, can be disabled. Wouldn't you rather use a browser that puts privacy first instead of making you dig through a ton of settings to give yourself some privacy back?
One study found that Microsoft Edge and Yandex are the LEAST secure and private browsers. If you are using those, PLEASE stop right now! In fact, what are you even doing with Yandex installed? Also, as someone who is not only concerned about online privacy and security but is also a web-developer, PLEASE STOP USING INTERNET EXPLORER!
If you are a Chrome user and have signed in with your Google account, you have essentially given all of your passwords, bookmarks, browsing history, and searches directly to Google. Sure, it is all sent in an encrypted manner which makes it less of a security concern. Still, the data could be intercepted and decrypted (although not very likely); Google could be hacked and this data made public (a bit more likely); and Google is actively using this data as we speak to try and determine your sexual preference, political alignment, stance on certain hot button topics, and many other intrusive things that are a bit scary. Also, Chrome sends a persistent device identifier along with website addresses, allowing the two to be linked. This means that Google can tell you what/who's device visited what websites.
Mozilla Firefox is guilty of most of what has already been mentioned. Firefox also includes identifiers in telemetry transmissions that can link the device identifier and the websites visited over time (telemetry is on by default but can be disabled). Firefox also opens a persistent WebSocket for push notifications. The WebSocket, the researcher said, is linked to a unique identifier and can potentially be used for tracking that is not easily disabled. Also, Mozilla has made it abundantly clear that they support policing the internet and doing away with free speech. As someone who is a fan of free speech, I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone uses Firefox.
Safari sucks. I'm sorry, I don't like Apple or any of their products. I'm forced to use a Macbook Pro at my day job, and I hate it. Safari's interface feels clunky and counter-intuitive to me. Visually, I have always hated Apple's "1,000 shades of gray" approach to design. Aside from my general hatred for Safari, it has some security concerns as well. Safari defaults to a start page that can leak information to multiple third parties who can preload pages containing identifiers to the browser cache. What’s more, associated iCloud processes made connections containing identifiers. We all know how secure iCloud is (if you don't get the sarcasm, look into iCloud hacks). With an update in mid-2020, Apple did make some improvements to the privacy features of Safari. Still, it is sending your info back to the mothership regularly, isn't the fastest browser, isn't the most secure, and is arguably the worst user experience of all browsers.
So What Browser Should I Use?
For the impatient of you reading this, I'll lead off with a list of privacy-focused browsers I like:
Obviously, I've listed Brave Browser as my pick for the best browser in previous posts. Well, this is a deeper look so I'll expand on things I like about it, things I'm not a fan of, and the other browsers that are all close competitors and maybe even better depending on what you want from a browser.
Brave is at the top of a lot of lists for the best browser for a lot of reasons. It consistently tests to be the fastest, it has built-in ad and tracker blocking that works well, the private browsing mode uses Tor giving it a MUCH more private experience than other browsers, and it is available on all major platforms including Linux. If you are a fan of Chrome extensions, you can use those on Brave. If you need a sync feature, Brave has one in beta right now and they claim to not have the keys to decrypt your data making it more secure than the sync functionality in popular browsers. The list of features is long! In fact, for a more complete list of features, you can look at brave.com/features/.
On the other hand, there are a few small complaints that can be had about Brave. There have been reports that Brave doesn't block Facebook and Twitter trackers completely. Some blocking is certainly better than none at all, but this needs to be rectified for Brave to really be taken seriously by the extremely privacy-focused individuals out there. Their CTO, Brian Bondy, said in a statement:
“There's a balance between breaking the web and being as strict as possible. Saying we fully allow Facebook tracking isn't right, but we admittedly need more strict-mode like settings for privacy conscious users. We do block Facebook at least as good as uBlock origin with EasyPrivacy… We're taking this seriously internally and we'll iterate on where we are to improve the situation.”
Furthermore, there was a bit of a scandal where Brave was caught slipping in their referral links when users visited crypto sites. What does this mean? When a user would visit an address like "binance[.]us", Brave would connect them to "binance[.]us/en?ref=35089877". This means that while the users get the same experience as they would without Brave adding their referral code, users who navigate to this link to sign up for an account are unwittingly signing up using Brave’s referral link, helping the browser generate revenue from user’s trading activities. It isn't a terrible practice in my opinion, but the fact that a privacy and security-focused browser wasn't upfront about this sort of thing feels like a betrayal.
The Rest of the "Good Browsers"
The other browsers I mentioned above are all very solid choices as well. I feel like each of them could be the best pick for you depending on what your primary needs are.
Vivaldi Browser is built around Chromium like Chome, Edge, Brave, and many other browsers. This gives it a familiar feel. It has a lot of the same sort of privacy features as Brave as well, including ad and tracker blocking. The main difference is that Vivaldi has some unique UI and customization features. I installed this to give it a test drive and the coolest thing I noticed was the way Vivaldi handles and sorts your tabs allowing for rows of tabs. It also allows users to change the appearance and position of many tools and features as the overall customization of Vivaldi is unmatched. I have seen some complaints about speed and some bugs, but my experience has been fast and bug-free thus far. Verdict: Try Vivaldi if you need to customize all the things!
Dissenter was created by Gab.com, the free-speech focused software company and social network. Gab is demonized by so many because there are people spreading hate on the platform. Guess what, there are more people spreading hate on Twitter and Facebook! As long as you allow free-speech, there will be bad actors and hate-speech. But I digress. Dissenter was forked from Brave so it has a lot of the same feature set and familiarity including the blocking of ads and trackers. The main difference is that Dissenter also has a comment app built-in that allows other users of the browser to leave comments on any website through the app. These comments are sent to Gab's servers and displayed directly through the browser so it allows for the ultimate free-speech experience. I'm sure there are incendiary comments to be found so, if you can't handle that then you should like elsewhere. If you are a free-speech advocate and want a privacy-focused browser with a wild-west comments section, give Dissenter a try! I tried it for a bit and feel pretty neutral about it overall, but I'll say that I'm a fan of free-speech with thick skin and I found the comments to be kind of hilarious at times!
Lastly, we have the Tor Browser. Tor was founded in 2006 to use what is called "onion routing" which is a concept created in the mid-1990s. Tor stands for "the onion routing" and believes that users have the right to private access to an uncensored web. The main thing to know here is that the Tor Browser runs your traffic through the Tor network first. The Tor network is comprised of thousands of volunteer-run servers known as "Tor relays". When your connection goes through this network, it is stripped of identifiers and encrypted 3 times before it exits the network to hit a public node of the internet. This makes surveillance, tracking, monitoring, etc impossible and makes every user look the same to the servers to which they connect. On top of all this, it has similar anti-tracker and ad-blocking features as some of the other mentioned browsers and clears your cookies when you exit the app. Who should use this insanely secure browser? Well, I'd say anyone can use it, but those of you with especially thick tinfoil hats will appreciate the privacy and security that the Tor Browser has to offer!
Now Go Get a Better Browser
If you made it this far, you are now MUCH more knowledgeable on browsers than the vast majority of people. Hopefully, you are also considering trading in that old browser for something much more secure! Personally, I have tried them all and I recommend you do the same if you are curious about their unique experiences. At the very least, grab Brave Browser and stop using any browser made by big tech!