Web Browsers: What You Need to Know
What is a web browser?
Well, according to Wikipedia,
A web browser (commonly referred to as a browser) is a software application for accessing information on the World Wide Web.
Choosing a good web browser all comes down to personal preferences, features, and user experience. For most people, the default option is Google Chrome, but this browser also does not do well in terms of privacy.
While not nearly as popular as Chrome, Firefox has built a name for itself and is a popular choice among privacy-conscious users. We even have a guide on how to customize Firefox for privacy.
The privacy problem with web browsers
One of the biggest problems with browsers today is that they can reveal vast amounts of private information about you and your browsing preferences. Third parties may be mining your browser for data or perhaps placing trackers and cookies on your browser to collect your browsing history. This is usually done to get better data for personalized ads.
Fortunately, there are solutions, which we cover in the guides below:
Secure Browsers That Respect Your Privacy
Firefox Privacy Configurations and Preferences
Browser Fingerprinting (Problems and Solutions)
1. Firefox (modified and tweaked for privacy)Firefox is a great all-around browser for privacy and security. It offers strong privacy protection features, many customization options, excellent security, and regular updates with an active development team. The newest version of Firefox is fast and light-weight with many privacy customization options. Out of the box, Firefox is not the best for privacy, but it can be customized and hardened, as explained in my Firefox privacy modifications guide. Be sure to disable telemetry in Firefox, which is a feature that will collect “technical and interaction data” and also “install and run studies” within your browser.
Firefox “safe browsing” preferences
There are many recommendations to disable the Safe Browsing feature in Firefox due to privacy concerns and potential Google tracking. However, these concerns are based on an older version of the Safe Browsing feature, which would utilize “real-time lookup” of website URLs. This method has not been in use since 2011 – explained further here.
If a URL is needed, Firefox takes the following precautions to protect user privacy, as explained by François Marier, a security engineer for Mozilla:
- Query string parameters are stripped from URLs we check as part of the download protection feature.
- Cookies set by the Safe Browsing servers to protect the service from abuse are stored in a separate cookie jar so that they are not mixed with regular browsing/session cookies.
- When requesting complete hashes for a 32-bit prefix, Firefox throws in a number of extra “noise” entries to obfuscate the original URL further.
Therefore I would conclude that disabling Safe Browsing would give you no tangible privacy benefits, while also being a security risk. That being said, if you still want to disable this feature, here’s how in the about:config area:
- browser.safebrowsing.phishing.enabled = false
- browser.safebrowsing.malware.enabled = false
2. Iridium browserIridium is a secure browser that is based on Chromium, configured for more privacy. This might be a good option for anyone wanting a browser that supports Chrome extensions, while also having much more privacy than you’d get from Chrome. Note: While Iridium supports Windows, Mac OS, and Linux, there is no option for mobile users on iOS and Android. The following excerpt from Iridium’s official site provides a good overview of this secure browser:
Iridium Browser is based on the Chromium code base. All modifications enhance the privacy of the user and make sure that the latest and best secure technologies are used. Automatic transmission of partial queries, keywords and metrics to central services is prevented and only occurs with the approval of the user. In addition, all our builds are reproducible and modifications are auditable, setting the project ahead of other secure browser providers.Iridium offers numerous security and privacy enhancements over Chrome, along with regular updates and releases. You can see how Iridium differs from Chromium here. All source code is available on GitHub.
3. Tor browserNext up we have the Tor browser. The Tor browser is a hardened version of Firefox that is configured to run on the Tor network. By default, the Tor Browser is a secure browser that protects you against browser fingerprinting, but it also has some disadvantages. Because it uses the Tor network, which routes traffic over three different hops, download speeds with the Tor browser can be quite slow. The default version may also break some sites due to script blocking. Finally, there are also drawbacks with the Tor network itself, including malicious exit nodes, high latency, dependence on US government financing, and some consider it to be fundamentally compromised. (See the pros and cons of Tor here.) Another option is to use the Tor browser with the Tor network disabled. In this sense, the Tor browser will work like the other browsers we’ve covered above. Additionally, you can simply run a VPN in the background. Like the Tor network, a VPN will also encrypt your traffic and hide your IP, but it will be much faster. The instructions for using the Tor browser without the Tor network are in my browser fingerprinting guide. Be careful when adjusting the settings for the Tor browser, however, as this may compromise the browser’s built-in privacy and security features.
4. Ungoogled Chromium browserUngoogled Chromium is an open source project to provide a Chromium browser, without the Google privacy issues:
ungoogled-chromium is Google Chromium, sans dependency on Google web services. It also features some tweaks to enhance privacy, control, and transparency (almost all of which require manual activation or enabling). ungoogled-chromium retains the default Chromium experience as closely as possible. Unlike other Chromium forks that have their own visions of a web browser, ungoogled-chromium is essentially a drop-in replacement for Chromium.Ungoogled Chromium receives regular Chromium security updates.
5. Brave browserBrave is a Chromium-based browser that is fast, secure, and privacy-focused by default. It has a built-in ad blocker and browser fingerprinting protection. The main developer behind Brave is Brandon Eich, who formerly worked for Mozilla. For out-of-the-box privacy and security, Brave is a decent option. Like Iridium, Brave is based on open source Chromium, but configured for privacy. It does well with its default privacy settings and extra features. Here is a brief overview:
- Blocks ads and trackers by default
- Protects against browser fingerprinting
- Built-in script blocker
- Automatically upgrades to HTTPS (HTTPS Everywhere)