Privacy first: Browsers you should be using and those you should avoid in 2023

Privacy first: Browsers you should be using and those you should avoid in 2023

We are living in a world where privacy is almost a myth. Have you ever searched for a new phone or a pair of shoes online and then noticed related ads following you around Instagram or Facebook? Ad tech companies are closely monitoring the online activity of the average internet user and then using the data for personalized advertising.

79% of websites globally use trackers to collect data about users’ online behaviour, according to Ghostery. About 10% of them are third-party trackers that send the data they have collected to ten or more different companies, the main ones being Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In a world where ad revenue and tracking are a gold mine for internet content creators, users’ privacy suffers. With the dawn of the AI age, there has never been such a huge demand for data. AI thrives on data so online tracking is an invaluable source of data for tech companies.

It’s almost like having your online activity monitored and recorded by spies or surveillance cameras. This data is then being used to generate a biased profile, from which advertisers decide which ads to show you. To make it worse, the data is even sometimes shared with law enforcement or governments, as revealed in Google’s transparency report.

What does the information collected reveal about you?

Your online behaviour can reveal your career or source of livelihood, political leanings, personal habits, interests, and preferences. Analytics can be used to further come up with your age and even gender. Think of it as a group of strangers knowing a bit too much about you, by spying on you. Isn’t that creepy?

It all starts with the browser you use

Most of the online activity of PC or laptop users is done within the browser. Privacy starts there. Read on to discover what browsers to avoid and the ones to use to reclaim your privacy!

Top 4 browsers to avoid

1. Chrome

I know you’re probably saying, “But it’s Chrome!!”. It’s the browser most people use. Sophisticated websites with features like video players can sometimes require you to use Chrome. Well, there is no denying that it’s a good browser. Chrome is based on the open-source Chromium browser codebase, whose code is available to the public and open to scrutiny. Statistics indicate that Chrome handles over 60% of internet traffic.

The problem is that Google uses Chrome as a window to peek into what you do online. This can be demonstrated when you enable sync and get all your web history from Chrome automatically reflected in your Google account in seconds. A Washington Post reveals that a single Chrome application gathers about 11,000 trackers a week. Geez!

Chrome is a privacy nightmare. Google does little to block trackers in Chrome because it presents a conflict of interest. Tracking is how Google makes money from Chrome. Read on to find out about Brave Browser, which looks like Chrome, feels like Chrome, but doesn’t spy on you like Chrome.

YouTube Video: How Google Chrome’s cookies track you.

2. Internet Explorer

It’s hard to believe that this forgotten fossil was once king of browsers. Apart from being old and unable to keep up with modern browsers, IE falls short in the privacy sector. It does not do enough to block trackers and ensure users’ privacy effectively. It only sends a “Do not track” request to websites, which is as good as ignored.

3. Opera and Opera Mini

Opera browsers are very popular and widely used in today’s internet world. They have an impressive in-built ad blocker and cool features like saving pages for offline, as well as the Whatsapp, Messenger, and Instagram sidebar on their desktop app. However, Opera was acquired by a Chinese consortium of companies led by Qihoo 360, which aren’t exactly cheerleaders of the privacy campaign by reputation. Furthermore, Opera acquired Surf Easy VPN which is now the VPN on Opera. The VPN tracks bandwidth and logs usage. Opera, therefore, scores very low on the privacy index and should be avoided.

4. Microsoft Edge

It would be mean not to give credit to Microsoft Edge’s sleek design. The features provided by Edge when opening PDFs are amazing and way better than what other browsers offer. Another plus to Edge is that it’s partially based on Chromium, so a part of it is open-source and can be scrutinized.

However, Edge sends persistent identifiers that can be used to link requests (and associate IP addresses/location) to backend servers according to Prof. Douglas Keith of the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin. In its defence, Microsoft argues that it asks for permission first, and the information it collects is diagnostic data for product improvement. They further claim that it offers a single-click delete feature on the users’ Microsoft account for all info collected, which is more than can be said for most companies. I wouldn’t take their word for it though.

PS: Don't worry, you can still access Bing Chat —  a GPT-4 powered AI —  outside of Edge.

3 Privacy Respecting Browser to use

You must be asking what browser is privacy-respecting enough to use, if any, now that I have smeared the most reputable ones. Worry not, three have met the privacy bar.

1. Brave Browser

Brave browser is an open-source browser fully based on open-source Chromium. It looks and feels like Chrome, well, except for the spying part. Brave is faster than Chrome. Since it is fully Chromium-based, you can install Chrome extensions on Brave from Chrome Web Store (Be careful with these as they may compromise privacy).

Brave has an in-built potent ad and a tracker-blocking feature called Brave Shields. Brave Shields can even allow you to watch YouTube ad-free! Brave does not collect any information about its users. It even has private windows with Tor, which is great for privacy but you can use Tor Browser itself for maximum privacy and anonymity (See no. 3 below). Brave also tries to upgrade every connection to HTTPS. In addition to that, Brave comes with an optional paid ad program where users are paid in Brave’s own cryptocurrency — Basic Attention Token (BAT) — for viewing privacy-respecting ads. Unfortunately, they changed their BAT policies and now restrict the sending of BAT to a crypto wallet to only some countries.

With Brave, you can even sync your history, passwords, bookmarks, and more without even logging in or creating an account. All you need to do is generate a key to start a sync chain and use it on Brave across all your devices. This feature is mindblowing. Install Brave here.

2. Firefox

Firefox Browser is an open-source browser by a non-profit organization, Mozilla, dedicated to privacy. Firefox has proved reputable for privacy and the non-profit part makes Mozilla genuinely concerned with privacy. It is very customizable and its latest Quantum engine is really fast, even faster than Chrome. If you are a web developer, you should check out Firefox Developer Edition. It does wonders for your productivity.

The default settings however can be a bit of a potential privacy risk. Telemetry and other communication from Firefox browser to Mozilla servers contain unique IDs that can potentially be used to track users, according to Prof. Douglas Keith. However, these can be disabled in the settings.

Install Firefox here.

3. Tor Browser

Tor Browser is a branch of Firefox which can access the Tor network. The Onion Router (Tor) is free and open-source software that adds 3 layers of encryption to web traffic, thus the name onion. It routes data through 3 nodes — an entry, relay, and exit node — to conceal the user’s IP address, location, and usage. Tor also blocks trackers and enables anonymous communication. Tor Browser does not track users’ history and clears cookies after every session.

The downside of Tor is that it uses privacy and anonymity measures so advanced that it attracted criminals and it became the main way to access the dark web. NSA and FBI were able to crack it and monitor Tor traffic by distributing malware through hidden servers or setting up their own nodes for spying. Tor is currently not 100% secure, but its shortcomings can be overcome to some extent by using Tor over VPN (VPN connected first, then Tor), which adds even more security. This enables users to avoid being flagged for using Tor by local law enforcement and makes monitoring much harder on either the VPN or Tor side.

Using Tor over VPN is probably overkill, and should only be used in extreme circumstances. Remember, your internet speeds will take a hit when using VPN over Tor since internet traffic is relayed across the world before it reaches its destination. You are better off using the other options above.

Install Tor Browser here.

There you have it. Go forth and be privacy-conscious!

PS: A lot of effort went into making this article informative, detailed and factual. If you discover an error or incorrect statement, kindly let me know in the comments. Or you can simply tell me what you think!