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Web browsers have become flooded with ad-sponsored content, making browsers a key battleground for end-user privacy. While Chrome is the most widely-used browser in the world, there are also alternative browsers and ways to improve your security available to help you stay anonymous online.
Data is one of today's key ingredients for generating revenue. Online advertising companies can use web browsing histories to fingerprint individual browsers over time, creating shadow user profiles to reveal information including a user's interests, product searches, and more -- which can lead to targeted advertising.
Researchers from Firefox-maker Mozilla conducted a study in 2020 with 52,000 Firefox users that revealed it is more complicated than ever to ensure total privacy online. They warned Google and Facebook's tight grip on online advertising makes re-identification through browsing histories an even more pressing privacy problem today.
Below, I've shared my top recommendations for secure browsers for privacy in 2023.
Also: The best VPN services (and why you need one to protect your privacy)
Brave features: Chromium-based | Blocks third-party ad trackers | Blocks cookies | Incognito windows | Onion routing
Brave is a Chromium-based browser that blocks ads, fingerprinting, and ad trackers by default.
Brave supports millions of users worldwide. The organization's business model relies on privacy-protecting ads that pay publishers and users when users pay attention to ads. The company is transparent about this revenue stream, and it is optional -- with users rewarded in crypto tokens if they opt-in to ad viewing.
Review: Brave browser: The bad and the ugly
Brave has several privacy-enhancing settings, including options to block third-party ad trackers, upgrade unsecured connections to HTTPS, as well as block cookies and fingerprinting. Invasive ads and trackers are disabled, which the company says then improves loading times on desktop and mobile.
Brave removed Google code from its Chromium to improve user privacy, including some account integration, background sync, and inline extensions. There is also a "Tor mode" available for use, which provides anonymized onion network routing.
The browser developer also offers a VPN and firewall service which protects sessions even outside of the browser.
Brave is now shipping a new feature called Unlinkable Bouncing. According to the developer, when you're about to visit a privacy-harming or suspicious website, your session is routed through temporary browser storage to prevent the site from identifying you -- instead, you will appear as a unique, first-time visitor, which helps to anonymize your visit.
Mozilla Firefox features: Enhanced tracking protection | Firefox Focus for mobile | Strict privacy standards | DNS queries sent to a secure resolver service | Focus on accessibility
Firefox is a must-have for individual browser privacy across multiple devices.
One of Firefox's most important privacy features is enhanced tracking protection. Mozilla has also borrowed Tor techniques to block browser fingerprinting, and Firefox developers are constantly seeking to improve tracking-prevention features.
Firefox is rich with choices to customize the browser for privacy The standard enhanced tracking prevention blocks social media trackers, cross-site tracking cookies, and blocks tracking in private windows, crypto miners, and fingerprinting scripts. There is a "strict" mode, too, that might break some sites when trackers are hidden in content -- but there are ways to allow enhanced tracking protection for trusted sites.
Also: What is Firefox Nightly and should you be using it?
The other option for Firefox fans is Firefox Focus, a privacy-focused browser for iOS and Android that blocks trackers and has a built-in ad blocker.
Mozilla also offers a VPN, with the option to connect up to five devices to over 500 servers in more than 30 countries.
The release of Firefox 113 comes with a boost to accessibility. The release includes code upgrades to allow screen readers and other assistive technologies to have faster access to the content they need.
DuckDuckGo features: Chrome and Firefox supported | Mobile private browser | Does not collect user data | AI experiments
When it comes to DuckDuckGo, user privacy comes first.
The privacy-focused search engine is a vocal supporter of consumer privacy rights and now handles millions of user search queries daily.
DuckDuckGo and the rise of encrypted messaging app Signal show there is a growing appetite for privacy-focused alternatives to tech giants like Facebook and Google. DuckDuckGo's Privacy Essentials extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft's Edge has also proven popular. Its reputation is built on the idea that it does not collect user data but can provide the same search results as those that do.
Also: DuckDuckGo brings its privacy-focused browser to Macs
DuckDuckGo is a search engine rather than a full browser, but the software is still recommended as an extension or as a mobile solution. The organization's mobile app provides a private search, website protection and blockers, web encryption, and more.
A Mac browsing app is currently being developed and is in the beta stage. There is also a closed beta for Windows machines. DuckDuckGo is also experimenting with AI-assisted technologies to improve its search experience.
The Tor browser features: Onion routing | DuckDuckGo integration | Access to websites outside of the clear web
Another great choice for improving your privacy on the web is the Tor browser, a non-profit project focused on anonymizing users online.
Its proprietary web browser disguises a user's IP address and activity by relaying it through a network of servers (nodes) run by volunteers. By bouncing your information around so much, it makes things exceptionally difficult to track, which is great if you don't want your ISP or anyone else spying on your online activity.
Tor can be a crucial tool for whistleblowers, journalists, activists, and people avoiding censorship. The Tor browser is also a popular choice for accessing the deep web: a collection of websites and pages that are inaccessible through traditional means, like search engines, in what is known as the "clear" web.
Also: How to use Tor browser (and why you should)
The Tor browser's default search engine is DuckDuckGo, which will not log or store your search queries.
While it isn't a mainstream browser choice, the Tor browser is a well-regarded browser for people who don't want to be tracked across the web, and it gets updated frequently by the Tor Project. The developers are currently working on infrastructure updates.
Page loads in the Tor browser can be slower and some sites might not work well due to the architecture of the Tor network. Nonetheless, the Tor browser is a privacy-preserving browser worthy of consideration.
Mullvad Browser features: Fingerprint masking approach | Removes online identifiers | Private mode enabled by default | Blocks trackers, cookies
Mullvad is a new entry to the secure browser market.
Not to be confused with the Tor browser, the Mullvad Browser is marketed as the "Tor Browser without the Tor network." The browser is built by the Tor Project team and distributed by Mullvad, a well-respected Swedish virtual private network provider.
The idea behind the browser is to emulate the Tor network by creating a similar fingerprint for all users, improving anonymity. Furthermore, the browser comes with a private mode out of the box, tracking and cookies are blocked, and online functions used to extract information from visitors -- such as device identifiers -- are prevented.
You can use the browser as a standalone product, or you can combine it with Mullvad VPN.
However, you should keep in mind that Mullvad was recently subject to a search warrant by the National Operations Department (NOA) of the Swedish Police.
The visit was connected to a "blackmail attack that hit several municipal institutions in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in October 2021," and "during the investigation, which is still ongoing, an IP address was found that led to the VPN service Mullvad," according to the organization.
Mullvad staff say that as the customer data did not exist, law enforcement left with nothing (and no customer information).
"Since Mullvad VPN by law is not required to collect any data related to our users' activities online -- and since the pure purpose of our service is to protect users from collection of such data -- it is in our interest, our customers interest, all our employees and owners' interest to not collect any data and therefore there is no reasonable grounds to doubt that we do not collect any data about our users' activities online," Mullvad said.
Brave is my top pick for the best browser for privacy based on my analysis of specs such as cookies stored, privacy settings, and speed of the top browsers. However, no browser is perfect, so you must decide which option suits you best.
Best browser for privacy
DuckDuckGo extension, mobile app
Not one size fits all, so be sure to reference the table below to better understand which browser suits your use case.
If you want...
The best overall browser for privacy. Brave focuses on privacy and security as a default, and the addition of optional onion routing is a nice touch.
A secure browser that focuses on tracking. The Firefox tracking prevention program is multi-layered and will certainly help prevent you from being profiled online.
DuckDuckGo extension, mobile
A search engine that never stores or logs your search queries. The relatively new mobile apps now extend this functionality together with website protections.
The Tor Browser
A system based on the onion routing network. You can access deep web websites and remain anonymous.
To use it with a virtual private network (VPN). It helps that Mullvad is a one-stop-shop and you don't need to download and install additional privacy-protecting extensions.
I am a technology journalist with a demonstrated history in enterprise tech and security. I compared each of these browsers and extensions to determine what makes them different and which is best for different use cases. The balance between managing user privacy and funding a business can be a tricky one for companies to manage, but as I've shown, many developers are willing to wave the security flag on behalf of users over potential opportunities to generate more revenue.
A privacy browser works by automatically erasing your browsing and search history and cookies. It also may limit web tracking, and some even help hide your location (IP address). Privacy-focused browsers may also promote virtual private network (VPN) usage and may include features designed to bypass censorship blocks and keep users as anonymous as possible.
If you are concerned about your online privacy, you should install a privacy browser or at least an extension. We have to take responsibility for our own privacy online these days, and you can't rely on companies to do the job for you.
Also: How to delete yourself from internet search results and hide your identity online
I can recommend a few basic steps to take: Download one of the privacy-first browsers listed above that doesn't log your queries and activities, install a VPN, and use messaging apps with end-to-end encryption. Furthermore, if you want to keep your email communications private, you should consider an encrypted email service like Proton Mail.
If you're using Chrome, an incognito window doesn't hide your IP address. It simply doesn't store your browser history, information you've entered into forms, or what permissions you've given to sites you've visited. Microsoft Edge, Firefox, and Opera all use a similar form of "anonymous" web window for browsing, but they aren't truly hiding your online identity.
Also: The best VPN services (and whether it's worth trying free VPNs)
If you want to block your IP address from being viewed or tracked, you can download a VPN, which masks your IP address so your service provider (or anyone else, for that matter) can't see what you're doing.
Honestly? Putting your personal or contact information on social media. If you have your full name, phone number, address, or place of work anywhere on your social media, someone can use it to wreak havoc on your personal accounts.
To prevent this, avoid using your real name online where possible, turn off location tracking, and don't post about your place of work if you can help it. All it takes is a single piece of personal information for someone with very bad intentions to get ahold of your entire online presence -- and so if you're posting photos of you away from home and on holiday, for example, you're letting people know your home is vulnerable.
Also: The best security keys
Those innocent-looking name generator memes are another big issue; the ones that have you type out your first pet's name and your childhood street name (or something similar) to make up a gnome (or whatever) name. These are answers to common password recovery questions, so by letting the world know that your Christmas elf name is Fluffy Elm Street, you could be handing over all of your personal accounts to internet criminals.
Online privacy and security are hot topics today. The amount of data quietly collected on each and every one of us is staggering -- and beyond targeted advertisements, you may not realize it.
The browsers I've recommended above can help tighten up your defenses against tracking and online monitoring, but as no browser is a perfect solution, you may also want to consider the alternatives below:
Epic isn't the most attractive browser, but it does block ads, trackers, fingerprinting attempts, crypto mining scripts, and more.
Edge includes features such as Defender SmartScreen, Password Monitor, InPrivate search, and Kids Mode.
Vivaldi is a well-respected browser with built-in activity and ad blocking, and it shows you how many trackers and ads have been blocked over time.