Have you ever been browsing the Internet, viewed something randomly, and within a few hours seen an ad for that exact object appear somewhere else? Almost everyone has had one of those stories. While many are slightly amusing, the activity behind them is much darker. These stories illustrate an important point - the Internet economy relies on watching and tracking your browsing habits.
If that idea makes you a little uncomfortable, you’re not alone. More and more people rely on a private browser to keep their Internet habits away from prying eyes. With lots of options out there, what is the best private browser?
What makes a browser private?
All Internet users rely on web browsers to access, process, and display information from the Internet on their devices. Aside from direct interactions through an app, almost all of your actions on the Internet flow through your web browser. As such, private browsing has two aspects to it.
First, does your browser protect you from third-party observers? Much of the current Internet economy relies on third-party cookies and trackers to follow your actions on the Internet. This lets them build a profile on you and tailor ads more likely to catch your attention. This external privacy - keeping your browsing habits safe from prying eyes - is what most people think of when we talk about private browsing.
There is another aspect to a private browser that goes under the radar; that’s what your browser does with your own information on its own. Most browsers are the products of companies that are heavily invested in the current Internet economy. Google is essentially an advertising company. Microsoft invests heavily in advertising via its search engine Bing. The Chrome and Edge browsers, among others, have a vested interest in promoting their own products and affiliated services.
With that in mind, which browsers succeed at keeping your actions concealed from third parties, and also treat your data carefully internally and externally?
Three ways to browse more privately
Short of a truly private browser, most users turn to a number of next-best steps. Unfortunately, the most common one is also the worst.
“Incognito mode:” not-so-private browsing
Almost every browser has its own version of Chrome’s well-known “Incognito mode”, like Brave’s Private Browsing. Most users assume that when you open a private tab, your actions are hidden from the world. Unfortunately, for most browsers that isn’t the case.
Unlike Brave’s Private Browsing, Incognito mode on Chrome never tries to hide your actions from anyone on the Internet; it is only intended to hide your browsing history from other users on the same device. The privacy is all on the user’s end; after your incognito browsing tab is closed, there is no record of your browsing on that device.
Incognito mode has a lot of uses; checking hotels and reservations for a surprise getaway or researching a controversial or personal topic that you do not want others in your household to see. But the privacy it offers is all one-way. The websites you visit in Incognito mode can still track you, and the sites and your ISP will still have a good idea of what you did.
In short, Incognito mode does nothing to actually protect your personal information from outside actors while browsing the Internet. If you want a private browser, you will need something more.
Privacy extensions: good, but not great
Many savvy Internet users realize that Incognito mode isn’t that private after all, and look for a better way to browse. Without switching browsers, most people turn to one of the many ad-blocker apps and privacy extensions that are available.
Why use an ad-blocker for better privacy? In their quest to block ads, most good ad-blockers also block or limit third-party cookies, known as trackers, which follow your browsing habits. You can read about the best ad blockers out there, but it is worth noting that ad-blockers bring their own set of challenges to browsing securely.
Ad-blocking extensions can see everything that your browser sees: when you add an extension to your browser, you add another potential gap in your Internet security. For that reason, it is vitally important to only add verified, reputable apps and extensions that you trust. Even then, there are risks: apps can be bought and sold, and an app that started out secure could end up serving a more dubious purpose.
Private browsers: the best way to browse privately
If you are concerned about your Internet safety and want to browse the Internet without letting a bunch of anonymous trackers into your life, you don’t need to be content with Incognito mode or third-party apps.
Consider a private browser instead. There’s no strict definition of what makes a browser private, but in general, a private browser is one that comes with the most extensive focus on keeping your data safe.
Which is the best private browser?
The good news is that most of today’s browsers give at least some consideration to protecting your browsing privacy. The bad news, of course, is that they do not all do a good job of it.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular private browsers from best to worst, along with how each of them does at keeping your data private.
The Tor Browser uses an anonymous network of computers to connect to the Internet. Your connection is forwarded from one computer to the next, with each step only knowing the next one. This makes for a highly private connection, but one that can be considerably slower than other browsers.
Tor commands a good reputation as a highly private browser, but it requires more patience and technical know-how than most other browsers. To take advantage of Tor’s privacy but Brave’s ease of use, consider Brave’s Private Browsing with Tor, which allows you to browse privately from within Brave via the Tor network.
Privacy is Brave’s default priority. Even on initial startup, Brave sends the fewest requests to other websites. Automatically, Brave’s Shields block third-party trackers and unwanted ads. Ads that are shown are stored locally, and Brave upgrades site security whenever possible.
Those are just the start of Brave’s privacy-first approach; Private Browsing with Tor provides an anonymous browsing experience that’s easy to use. Brave’s approach to the Internet puts users first and foremost. You control your own data, and you choose who to share it with.
Firefox’s non-profit nature gives it less incentive to track your habits; it is not an advertising company like Google. That’s not to say that Firefox is entirely private, however. Much of Firefox’s financial support comes from lucrative deals with Google to keep Google as Firefox’s default search engine.
In general, Firefox has a good reputation for providing decent privacy in its default mode, with the added ability to customize the browser with security extensions. With a little bit of work, you can configure Firefox to default to a private-browsing mode and block third-party trackers.
The default browser for Mac and iOS users, Safari offers some nice security features such as pop-up blockers but doesn’t offer anything above and beyond the normal for privacy. Safari doesn’t block trackers or third-party cookies and doesn’t automatically upgrade website security from
Additionally, Safari suffers the major drawback that it is only available to Mac and iOS users; the browser ceased cross-platform support several years ago.
DuckDuckGo, the privacy-based search engine, also offers a privacy-first mobile browser. DuckDuckGo blocks trackers and assigns each website a privacy score, allowing you to see at a glance what each site does or tries to do with your data.
DuckDuckGo’s search engine has an excellent record for treating your data carefully and not collecting it or selling it on to other third parties, and the browser does a similarly good job.
With a strong emphasis on customization, it is no surprise that Vivaldi provides a number of tools for users to enable a more private browsing experience. These include options to block first-party cookies as well as third-party trackers.
As far as a private browser goes, Vivaldi does a good job of keeping user data private - provided you take the time to configure the browser correctly.
Opera has long been an outsider in the browser world; it originated in Norway in the mid-90s. Privacy-wise, Opera offers some useful features, such as a built-in VPN service to hide your IP address from prying eyes.
Unfortunately, Opera also has a couple of known privacy issues. On startup, Opera sends requests to a number of sites known to track your activity - notably Yandex (the Russian search engine). Opera is also owned by a Chinese corporation, raising some questions about its dedication to user privacy.
8. Microsoft Edge
Edge largely fails as a private browser. From the beginning, Edge sends requests to Microsoft that contain information that identifies the sending hardware. In other words, Edge tells Microsoft what you are. That info can’t be modified or changed.
You won’t find Edge listed in most rundowns of private browsers, for good reason: Edge isn’t a private browser. It does allow privacy apps and extensions to be installed, but when it comes to the browser itself, Edge fails to protect user data adequately.
9. Google Chrome
Chrome is the most popular browser by a considerable margin, at least in the U.S. Unfortunately, it is one of the least private browsers. Because Google is at heart an advertising company, Chrome was built to track as many of your actions on the Internet as possible.
With Chrome, the threat to user privacy isn’t external, but internal. Recent studies examined how browsers acted when they were first installed on a new computer, analyzing who the browsers talked to and what information they requested and sent. One study found that Chrome sent browsing information and certain hardware identifiers to backend servers - i.e., back to Google. While some of that information could be reset, there was a clear risk to user privacy.
Google also tracks search history on your browser, and through any of Google’s affiliated sites. YouTube, Google Maps, and of course Google’s search engine all keep records of what you’ve searched for. If you’re signed in to your Google account, Google sees what you search for. While this information can be deleted, it requires extra steps and you’ll want to explore how much other information Google is tracking.
Further considerations on private browsing
Can I use extensions while private browsing?
If you are using a private browser like Brave, your extensions can be used normally. Be aware, however, that every extension brings its own set of security and privacy risks. Many extensions, such as ad blockers, can see everything that your browser sees - so if you block ads and trackers but let a bad extension through, your browsing won’t be private.
Does private browsing affect ad revenue?
A privacy-first approach to Internet browsing that blocks ads and advertising trackers will cut into advertising revenue that relies on the current, surveillance-based Internet economy, which is built around tracking and analyzing your browsing habits.
That seems like bad news for sites that rely on ad revenue at the cost of user data, but Brave provides a better way forward. With Brave, users are rewarded for the ads they choose to view. Those rewards can quickly and easily be passed on to content creators, whether they are bloggers, websites, or creators on YouTube or Twitch. Brave uses the Basic Attention Token (BAT), a crypto token using the Ethereum blockchain. BAT can be tipped directly from one person to another, or from one person to a content creator.
This method allows Brave to maintain a privacy-first approach that blocks third-party ads, while also creating a new Internet economy.
Private browsing and YouTube
YouTube and Twitch are two of the clearest examples of how content creators rely on ad revenue to make a profit. A private browser like Brave that blocks third-party advertising interferes with the ads streamers rely on. Blocking Twitch and YouTube ads can negatively impact the bottom line for small creators.
Fortunately, there are other ways for these creators to make money that don’t rely on ads. Twitch allows viewers to subscribe directly to a creator, while YouTube supports merchandise pages. And with Brave, you can donate directly to the creators who have partnered with Brave, giving them an entirely new revenue stream.
Brave: a user-friendly private browser
You can improve the privacy of most browsers, but it requires adding a host of extensions, changing default settings, finding new search engines, and generally taking extra steps to keep yourself safe.
Brave does that work for you and empowers the user at every turn. From choosing your own search engine to blocking trackers, Brave is a next-generation browser that puts privacy first and opens the door to an Internet economy based on user privacy, not advertiser surveillance.