You’ve seen the news: Big Tech companies collect your data, trade it, sell it, and lose it to security breaches almost every day. But while this is a big, complex problem, there’s an easy way to safeguard your data: by looking more closely at your browser.
The most popular browsers (like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge) are built to collect data, not protect it. Some lesser known ones prioritize privacy and security, but often at the expense of speed or convenience. What’s needed is a middle way: A browser that protects privacy and security; that’s optimized for performance; and that works with all your favorite Web pages.
In this article, we’ll define what makes a secure browser, and look at some of the best secure browsers.
The basics of secure browsing
A secure browser does much more than hide your browsing history. It also blocks third-party trackers and ads that collect your personal information to deliver targeted advertising.
Also called a “safe browser” or “privacy browser,” a truly secure browser will integrate data protection mechanisms. For example, it might hide your IP address, block phishing, cross-site cookies, and more. The idea is to prevent fingerprinting (or unauthorized identification of you or your device), and thus block Big Tech’s attempts to monitor your online activity.
Security vs. privacy
While browser security and privacy are technically different, they go hand-in-hand. Security mainly refers to technical aspects of browser operation, like issuing updates to stay on top of emerging viruses and malware, or upgrading website connections from HTTP to HTTPS.
Privacy, by contrast, deals primarily with protecting your data. A private browser might try to anonymize your profile online, or even use a built-in Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide your geographical location and encrypt your connection. Of course, many of the measures that increase security also give you better privacy. So it’s common to find the most private browser is also the most secure browser, and vice versa.
What about Incognito mode?
Since Chrome first introduced Incognito mode, almost every browser has launched a similar feature. These private windows tell your browser not to store any information from that particular browsing session. But note: these Incognito or private windows only block other people on your computer from seeing the pages you visited. They don’t block websites from tracking you, and they don’t block Big Tech companies from collecting your data.
For example, if you shop on Amazon in Incognito mode, the retailer will still know what you viewed during your visit. Another person who uses your computer would not.
Browsing history, cookies, and trackers
While all browsers can keep a record of your browsing history, this isn’t always malicious. For example, your browsing history can help you quickly revisit a cooking website to find a favorite recipe. The real problem comes with the browser maker’s policy toward viewing and collecting that browsing data—in whether that data stays on your device, or gets secreted away to some server farm and tied to your online profile.
Your browser uses first-party cookies to store a history of the websites you visit. These small data packets live in your browser, and allow your browser to recall information such as passwords and page preferences. Your data is stored as a cookie, and retrieved when needed. These cookies aren’t inherently harmful, but they can each add a tiny bit of information to your website visits. It matters how your browser stores these packets of data.
Third-party cookies, also known as trackers, can be placed on one website by an entirely different website. Through this tactic, third-party websites can see your browsing history, page preferences, even personal info. And all without your knowledge.
Third-party cookies can be used to steal login information, or enable advertising companies like Google and Facebook to bombard you with targeted ads that follow you from site to site.
Why you should care about security and privacy
The current Internet economy is built on surveillance and data brokerage. Advertising companies collect, buy, and sell your browsing data to enable targeted ads that boost revenue. Your mobile device is easily tracked by your WiFi or cellular signal, and gives Big Tech companies (among others) access to your physical location at all times. Your home internet provider (ISP) knows similar information, and can also track data that moves back and forth along its connection.
So, how might you browse securely on any device or Internet connection? It starts with caution. You should avoid opening suspect files, clicking on suspicious links or emails, or installing dangerous extensions. Beyond these best practices, a secure browser is a great next step.
What features should a secure browser have?
Ideally, a good secure browser should do two things:
- A secure browser should automatically block the majority of third-party trackers. It should also try to stop digital fingerprinting and safeguard your identity whenever possible.
- A secure browser should also give you control over your information. It should give you tools to control who can follow your Internet browsing habits.
Basically, a good security browser should mask your identity as you surf the web. It should allow you to visit sites as an anonymous user, leaving behind no personal info, and no telltale clues about your identity or browsing habits.
Which browser is the most secure?
In general, there are different levels of Internet security and privacy. Some browsers use highly complicated but secure anonymization and identity protection techniques. These make it hard for anyone to track you, but also slow down page load. When you select a browser, you’ll need to decide what degree of security you desire, weighing this against any potential inconvenience or browser performance issues.
Below, we break down the unique features of several popular browsers to determine how secure they are.
Security and privacy are top priorities for the Brave. The Brave browser automatically blocks cross-site trackers and third-party cookies, fingerprinting, bounce tracking, and some malware and phishing attempts. It blocks invasive ads from every page you visit, offering a faster, uncluttered experience of the Web; it upgrades every connection possible to more secure HTTPS. Brave also offers a suite of other tools (like its truly independent search engine—Brave Search—and free, private video calls via Brave Talk).
The Google Chrome browser updates regularly to protect against known threats and security issues. However, it’s important to note that Google is an advertising company first, and Chrome is a Google product. This creates a conflict of interest—Google has a vested interest in tracking your browsing habits so it can sell more targeted ads. While Chrome is sometimes better than Edge, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to user privacy and security.
The default browser on Apple devices, Safari has a number of security features and extensions available. But, as with all Apple products, Safari’s source code isn’t open source, making it difficult to know how secure Safari is compared to alternatives. We do know that Safari permits invasive ads and cross-site cookies, and is generally considered less secure than privacy-first browsers.
The Opera browser delivers several useful security add-ons like a built-in VPN. However, Opera tends to take an “opt-out” approach to security and privacy. So, for example, you’ll need to change some of the default settings to prevent the browser from caching your data.
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 previous one. On the plus side, this method results in a highly private connection. On the downside, it can bring considerably slower page load than other browsers. While Tor brings added privacy and security, it may mean concessions on performance.
Brave: security, privacy, and performance
Unlike other browsers, Brave puts you in control of your data. The secure browser automatically blocks trackers and unwanted ads while also providing anti-phishing and anti-malware protection. Because Brave has taken a privacy-first approach to development from the start, it also has an unmatched combination of security and performance—pages in Brave still load with lightning speed (up to 3x faster than Chrome), leading to improved battery life and mobile data savings. Brave offers the best of all worlds: security, privacy, and performance.