The software that you use to browse the web needs to facilitate easy browsing without overstepping privacy boundaries. In some cases, switching to a more obscure browser could offer significant protection against surveillance, aggressive remarketing, and the sale of your data. But can the user experience be as good?
We put 18 browsers to the test and picked out the best two options for private browsing.
Which Browsers Are We Using?
On the whole, we choose browsers that offer convenience first and foremost. We can see this from StatCounter’s global usage figures from December 2018
Chrome is the clear leader, but it’s also the worst browser for privacy-conscious users.
To explain why, we’ll look at some common privacy problem with browsers, and some of the reasons that you might not want to trust the ones with large market share.
The Trouble With Chrome
Chrome is the clear leader in the browser wars, largely because it’s convenient for Google users, and there are well over one billion of us. Once signed in to Chrome, your data is synced across all of your devices that are running an instance of the browser, and your data is stored in the cloud.
Sounds great. But any time a company syncs your data, you should be asking questions. And Google harvests a frightening amount of data about every signed-in user on Chrome. It may track your location. All of your searches are saved, as are all of the sites you have visited. And it records every search you carry out using your voice. All of your Google service usage is then tied to your email address.
While there’s nothing illegal or immoral about this, what happens when governments come knocking, asking for data about what a particular user has been up to? According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google has no public policy on NSL gag orders.
And it’s also taking part in secret meetings with the UK government — authors of the Snooper’s Charter — to discuss, among other things, putting backdoors into encryption for government use.
And there are other issues at play. Google uses your browsing data to build a custom profile in order to place more “relevant” ads on your screen. Consider the fact that Google made $79.4 billion from advertising in 2016. Conflict of interest? Maybe so.
You can switch off tracking features and delete the data Google holds. But as soon as you resume browsing in Chrome, it will start raking in data once more.
Recommended Browsers for Privacy
In order to weigh up the alternatives to Chrome, you’ll need to find a balance of privacy controls, convenience, and access to the features that are most important to you.
There are dozens of browsers available if you want a more privacy-centered alternative, but not all of them offer significant improvement over Chrome.
We’ve put together a simple table that pulls together some of the most important privacy features to consider. Bear in mind that this isn’t a complete list of available browsers, and many offer privacy features that we haven’t included in the list.
From this initial investigation, we can see two clear winners.
Tor: Best for Strong Privacy
The Tor Browser is actually a gateway to a network of servers that bounce your traffic around to anonymize your browsing activity. The system is based on technology originally developed for the US military, and it’s now the go-to browser for anyone that needs robust privacy protection online.
Tor’s network slows down web browsing because of the way it moves Web traffic through different servers. But otherwise, it’s very easy to get to grips with, and requires no technical knowledge to use. It’s based on Firefox, so the layout will be immediately familiar to you if you’ve used a Firefox-based browser before.
Tor provides access to an underworld of hidden services (onion sites) known as the “dark web”. It’s inadvisable to explore it unless you’re confident in using Tor, since you may stumble upon unsavory and illegal content. There may also be security risks from malware and viruses that lurk on dark web sites.
But don’t let this put you off. You can use Tor as a regular web browser safely providing you use the same precautions and common sense that you’d use on the regular Web. You may just find that some functionality doesn’t work properly because risky features are disabled by default. If that’s an issue, keep reading.
Epic: Best for Convenient Browsing
In our research, the Epic browser stood out as one of the most privacy-aware ‘traditional’ browsers available. It manages to provide a relatively standard browsing experience, unlike some of the others we tested, and is based on Chrome which makes it feel familiar to users making the switch.
Epic has significant modifications compared to Chrome under the hood. Its developers claim that pages load up to 25% faster because it blocks ads, certain scripts, and tracking cookies. Epic is also one of the few browsers we found that that deletes your browsing history when you close the application. It has its own built-in proxy, similar to the VPN in Opera, and it’s good to see that Epic actively blocks WebRTC leaks.
Epic prioritises SSL to ensure that you benefit from secure connections whenever they are available. (Both Brave and Tor do this — and you can achieve it in other browsers using extensions like HTTPS Everywhere.)
Many of the convenient features from Chrome — like auto-suggest, auto-translate, spell check, and password retention — are missing from the Epic browser. But if a site doesn’t work as it should, you can use a toolbar button to turn some of its features off. That’s a nice touch.
Several browsers came close to the top of the list. All of them are open-source, but they didn’t quite match the privacy protection in Tor or Epic:
- Brave is another browser based on Chromium that does a good job of replicating the Chrome experience without the Google tracking or privacy-breaching features. It lacks some of Epic’s advanced functionality, but it’s still a solid choice, and there’s a mobile version for popular smartphones.
- Pale Moon and Waterfox are based on Firefox. Both require Firefox extensions to replicate some of the features built-in to Tor and Epic. The lack of Mac support lets Pale Moon down, but both options are recommended if you are uncomfortable with Firefox’s Telemetry feature, which is disabled in both of these alternatives.
Browsers Not Currently Recommended
Many browsers have a history of privacy or security problems that made them impossible to recommend in this guide:
- SeaMonkey falls down on its poor WebRTC support; while there is a workaround, it could open up your mic and camera to all websites.
- Iron browser looks promising, but there are question marks over its ‘open source’ claim, which is one of a few reasons to avoid it.
- Comodo Dragon has a poor track record in security.
- Maxthon has a worrying past. It was found to send private data to China via an unsecure connection, and users report WebRTC leaks.
If you’re unsure about a browser, we recommend that you stick with open source software that has a good track record and is (generally) well-received and well-tested.
Choosing a web browser is partly a matter of personal taste. And there are practical considerations too. The most secure browsers also tend to be limited in their feature set, and — in some cases — slower than their mainstream competitors.
But if you want to avoid exposing your browsing history to a stranger, a more obscure browser could be a better option than one of the big players. Tor and Epic are our current picks because they manage to retain as much functionality as possible while making privacy a core concern.
If you decide to use a more obscure browser, be vigilant and stay abreast of changes. Small projects can change direction quickly; projects are often neglected or abandoned, and vulnerabilities could be found. Today’s smart choice could be tomorrow’s security nightmare, so you should always use a VPN, irrespective of the browser you prefer.
If you have any concerns about browser privacy, tools like BrowserLeaks and Panopticlick will tell you exactly what your browser is revealing to the world. It’s worth testing yours once in a while to ensure you’re getting the privacy protection you’re expecting.