Online privacy is a major concern in the tech world, and by far the biggest privacy issues arise when you browse the internet. Why? Because online marketers of all stripes are keen to monetize you by following you around the web by tracking your browser activity and browser cookies, your IP address, and other device-specific identifiers.
Cookies are small bits of data that websites deposit in your browser’s storage to keep track of where you've already logged in and other site activity, such as when you have items in an online shopping cart. They’re essential to making the web more usable. Privacy issue arises with third-party cookies—those that are dropped into your browser not by the site you’re viewing but by a third party, most often Google, Facebook, or an advertising service. Other websites then have access to that information, letting them peruse your internet trail.
In fact, fingerprinting is a more worrisome privacy concern than cookies. You can delete cookies at any time, but, unless you get a new device, you can’t escape your digital fingerprint. Another issue is the long string of characters some sites add when you copy a web address. Those identify you as well. A browser extension called ClearURLs can help protect that kind of tracking.
A browser can take measures to protect you against these privacy infringements, but note that private browsing mode—variously called Incognito mode, InPrivate, or simply Private mode—usually doesn’t protect you against tracking. Private browsing mode usually only hides your activities from the local machine’s history so that people with access to your device can't see where you've been on the web.
Some browsers, such as Edge and Safari, block known fingerprinters based on blacklists, and Firefox is working on a behavioral blocking system that alerts you if a site tries to perform actions that look like fingerprinting—for example, trying to extract your hardware specs using the HTML Canvas feature. That experimental Firefox tool removes identifying data used by fingerprinters.
The Brave browser, Avast Secure Browser, and Apple’s Safari already have features that obscure data such as “device and browser configuration, and fonts and plug-ins you have installed,” according to Apple’s site.
Another privacy protection landing in browsers such as Firefox and Edge lately is support for more-secure DNS protocols. That’s the system of servers that your browser contacts to translate text web addresses into their number equivalents that web servers use. By default, your ISP’s DNS servers provide this translation, but secure browsers now use DoH (DNS over HTTPS) to both encrypt the connection and prevent your ISP from sending your unfound browsing requests to their search providers. For more on all this, read How (and Why) to Change Your DNS Server.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) publishes a Cover Your Tracks webpage to test your browser’s susceptibility to tracking and fingerprinting. It uses a real tracking company—the name of which it does not reveal—for its tests. Be forewarned: It almost always reports that your browser has a unique fingerprint. Other tools you can use to see your digital fingerprint include AmIUnique and Device Info.
If you still want to use Chrome or another browser that doesn't offer much tracking protection, you have recourse in plug-ins that may help protect your privacy, such as Decentraleyes, DuckDuckGo, PrivacyBadger, or uBlock Origin. DuckDuckGo has announced a standalone private browser as well, which we'll add to this roundup when it becomes available. Currently it offers a mobile browser and a browser extension, but not a desktop browser quite yet.
As with everything in life, there’s no such thing as perfect security or privacy. But using one of these browsers can at least make it harder for entities to track your internet browsing, to different degrees.
Apple was one of the first major tech vendors to raise the profile of fingerprinting as a privacy concern, discussing it at WWDC 2018. The default browser for Apple devices, Safari, offers some protection against this type of tracking by presenting “a simplified version of the system configuration to trackers so more devices look identical, making it harder to single one out,” according to the company’s documentation.
Safari offers minimal settings for privacy and only gets a result of “some protection” and “some gaps” on the EFF Cover Your Tracks test. The “nearly” unique fingerprint result, however, is better than most browsers (even Firefox), for which the test reports “Your browser has a unique fingerprint.”
Platforms: macOS, iOS, iPadOS
Avast is one of the few browsers included here with built-in VPN functionality, but using it will cost you $5.99 per month, with discounts if you sign up for a longer commitment. Avast tells you that its VPN uses the open-source, industry standard OpenVPN protocol. There’s a one-week free trial, too, that doesn’t require payment info, though Avast has offered free services before with questionable nonmonetary costs.
The browser also features built-in ad blocking, anti-phishing features, and a password manager. The default search provider is tracker-in-chief Google, but the EFF’s Cover Your Tracks tool reports strong tracking protection though with a unique (traceable) fingerprinting profile. The Chromium-based browser looks good and is compatible with most sites.
Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows
Brave is a browser with an emphasis on privacy and ad-blocking, but at the same time, it lets you earn cryptocurrency while you browse. Like most browsers these days (apart from Firefox, Tor, and Safari), Brave relies on a customized version of Chromium, the code that powers Google Chrome, meaning it’s compatible with most websites. Brave has higher goals than simply letting you hoard crypto or even protecting your privacy: Its creators want to achieve a revolution in the way web commerce works, with direct micropayments taking the place of rampant ads.
The EFF’s Cover Your Tracks tool reports “strong protection against Web tracking,” and a feature called Shields blocks third-party tracking cookies and ads by default. Brave forces HTTPS (something common among recent browsers) and lets you choose between Standard and Aggressive tracker and ad blocking. Brave also has advanced fingerprinting protections that “randomize the output of semi-identifying browser features” and turn off features commonly used to sniff device info. In our brief tests, Brave was the only browser for which the EFF tool reported a randomized fingerprint.
To earn cryptocurrency rewards with Brave, the software periodically pops up an unobtrusive ad in a box outside the browser window—you can turn it off if you prefer. At one point, the Brave cryptocoin, called Basic Attention Token (BAT) increased by over 1,000% in value, though now it’s only up about 600% from its initial launch.
Brave recently announced that the company would be coming out with its own Brave Search private search engine for use in the browser. Curious Brave users can already try out the new search engine in beta form via Settings, and users of other browsers can check it out at search.brave.com. The company has yet another new initiative called SugarCoat, designed to thwart scripts that gather your browsing data while maintaining site functionality.
Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows
Bromite is an Android-only browser that’s a fork of Chromium—a fancy way to say it’s based on the code that underlies Google Chrome, edited to its needs. According to the browser’s website, Bromite is a “no-clutter browsing experience without privacy-invasive features and with the addition of a fast ad-blocking engine.” It’s not on the Google Play Store, since it’s un-Googled to the extent the developers found possible. That means you need to allow installation of its APK (application package file) in your Android Settings.
Oddly, Bromium’s default search provider is Google, though you can change it to a private search provider like DuckDuckGo. Like Safari, Bromium earned the “nearly unique” fingerprint designation, compared to most browsers’ “unique” designation. That means it’s a little harder to identify you exactly. Bromite offers its own Fingerprinting Mitigations Test Page, though interpreting the results isn’t intuitive. Otherwise, Bromite looks and works a lot like the Android version of Chrome.
The famed private search provider DuckDuckGo has a standalone mobile web browser. And as mentioned, the group is working on a DuckDuckGo desktop browser, which we are eagerly awaiting. The company hasn't made many details public about how it may handle issues such as fingerprinting, however.
Until the desktop browser becomes available, you can install the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials extension to turn your existing browser into a privacy-focused piece of software. It blocks third-party trackers, switches your search engine to its privacy-focused one, forces sites to use an encrypted (HTTPS) connection where available, and lets you see a privacy score for sites you visit. The extension raised Chrome’s score on the EFF’s Cover Your Tracks tool to "strong protection."
Platforms: Android, iOS, extension for desktop browsers
Like Avast and Opera, Epic Privacy Browser includes built-in VPN-like functionality with its encrypted proxy, which hides your IP address from the web at large. The company claims that Epic blocks ads, trackers, cryptomining, and even ultrasound signaling! It also blocks fingerprint tracking scripts and prevents WebRTC.
Unfortunately, the EFF’s Cover Your Tracks tool reports only partial protection against tracking ads and invisible trackers in Epic with default settings. (You see the same result that you get with Google Chrome: “Our tests indicate that you have some protection against Web tracking, but it has some gaps.”) When you tap Epic’s umbrella button to enable the built-in version of uBlock, the results improve to "strong protection" against web tracking.
The browser interface looks almost identical to that of Chrome, aside from the included privacy and proxy extension buttons. Otherwise, it lacks special convenience features found in competitors like Edge and Opera.
Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows
Mozilla has long been at the forefront of trying to improve privacy on the web. The company even came up with the Do Not Track option for browsers, which Google swiftly rendered useless; that only makes sense for a company that bases much of its business on tracking users. Firefox was also the first browser with a private browsing mode that could hide browsing not only from people with access to your device, but also from other sites.
Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection’s Standard setting blocks social media trackers, cross-site tracking cookies, cross-site cookies in Private Windows, tracking content in Private Windows, cryptominers, and fingerprinters. The EFF’s Cover Your Tracks tool reports “strong protection against Web tracking” at this setting. Strict mode blocks trackers hidden in ads, videos, and other site content. The fingerprinting protection currently uses a list of known fingerprint trackers, but Mozilla is working on a future update that will make your browser look more undistinguishable to thwart fingerprinters.
Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, Linux
The accursed Internet Explorer is finally far in the rear-view mirror, and even its initial Edge replacement has now been replaced with a truly modern Chromium-based Edge. The Microsoft team behind Edge had privacy as a top goal when developing the browser, along with customization and productivity features like its Collections for web research. The browser continues to innovate, with vertical tabs, forced HTTPS connections, sleeping tabs, performance boosts, and new accessibility features like enhanced contrast. Clearly, there are plenty of reasons to choose Edge as your browser.
For privacy, Edge includes tracking protection at a choice of three levels: Basic, Balanced, and Strict. According to an Edge blog post, all levels block “trackers we detect as cryptomining or fingerprinting.” But there’s no attempt to make the browser appear more generic and less identifiable as some other browsers included here do. Edge also supports Secure DNS. Not in its favor, Edge does offer to personalize your advertising in Bing and Microsoft News; you can turn it off and visit your privacy dashboard to check your settings.
On the EFF’s Cover Your Tracks test, Edge gets a rating of “strong protection against Web tracking” but indicates you still have a unique, and therefore trackable, fingerprint.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, macOS, Windows
Opera has a long history of innovation among web browsers. The Norwegian software company was the first to include tabs and integrated search in a web browser, and an Opera developer invented CSS, just for starters. Now, it has free built-in VPN, and the company offers a gaming browser called Opera GX.
PCMag’s VPN experts always correct me when I mention that Opera has a built-in VPN, saying it should be called a Proxy, not a VPN. The distinction is that a standard VPN cloaks your IP address from all the traffic from your computer, while Opera’s feature only applies to the browser. Opera states that it’s a no-logging VPN, which is something you should look for when choosing any VPN. It uses AES-256 encryption.
Opera also blocks ads and trackers by default, and the EFF's Cover Your Tracks test reports "strong protection against Web tracking." It doesn’t have specific anti-fingerprinting features, so that same test says it presents a unique fingerprint, though with the VPN/proxy feature enabled that changes to "a nearly unique fingerprint," which is a win. With its Speed Dial and sidebar of quick-access buttons to things like messaging services and frequently visited sites, Opera still stands apart from most browsers in offering unique conveniences.
Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows
The Tor (it stands for “the onion router”) browser’s slogan is “Protect yourself against tracking, surveillance, and censorship.” It’s the ultimate in privacy protection in a browser, and the EFF’s privacy test reports “strong protection against Web tracking.” It provides a multistep encrypted route for your browsing that makes identifying you very difficult. The reason it provides more privacy than a VPN is that your encrypted traffic goes through at least three nodes. The first node knows the source but not the destination of the traffic, the middle ones know neither, and the last only knows only the destination—making it nearly impossible to trace the traffic back to you. In a VPN, the VPN provider has access to both the origin (your browser) and the destination site, so you need to trust the VPN company you choose. Just as VPN exit nodes are known—which enables Netflix and the like to block people from using VPNs—the destinations know you’re using Tor, but not your originating identity.
An even more private way to run Tor is through Tails, a lightweight operating system based on Ubuntu that you run off a USB drive. Tails doesn’t save any unencrypted data from your browsing session and leaves no traces on your computer’s drive.
Platforms: Android,Linux, macOS, Windows
Vivaldi, an offshoot of Opera that also uses the Chromium browser code, is the ultimate in customizability among browsers. It includes innovative features like built-in translation, split-window view, tab groups, notes, a link sidebar, and mouse gesture support.
Vivaldi includes built-in ad blocking and tracker blocking, though it doesn’t specifically attempt to thwart fingerprinters. As with the rest of the browser’s features, privacy settings are deep, broad, and granular, as you can see in the screenshot above. The EFF’s Cover Your Tracks test reported “strong protection against Web tracking” for Vivaldi with tracking protection on, though it still reported a unique fingerprint.
Platforms: Android,Linux, macOS