Every site you visit tracks you in one way or the other, some sites require an account to view their content, others require allowing cookies, and this information is vacuumed up by web advertising agencies whose existence is predicated upon turning your browsing behavior into a product for marketing executives.
We already know how Gmail scans your email content, but what advertisers and others are doing with your browser data is a black box. The advertising industry likes to not talk about how tracking your entire online behaviour enables them to create profiles about yourself, your family, friends, and colleagues, and how this data helps them to post targeted ads to maximize the profits they can get - simply from harvesting your data.
But you have the power to stop this!
Mainstream browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, Opera, Internet Explorer - these are all browsers to avoid as they do not respect your privacy. Better pick Firefox instead!
Today we will go ahead and take a look at a number of privacy-oriented web browsers outside those provided by Big Tech, which treat you like a human being and not a bullseye for targeted advertisement revenue. Let's dive into it!
For our purposes we will be dividing the browsers into three categories: Mainstream Privacy, Alternative Privacy, and Top Anonymity.
If you would like to run some of these comparisons yourself or even just make a quick privacy-checkup the EFF has released a great tool called Cover Your Tracks which can be used to see what information your browser may be sharing with websites and organizations interested in your online activity. After running this test, I am sure you will be so creeped out, you'll want to switch to a private browser right away!
We will take a look at the unique features provided by each browser along with some pros and cons of adopting them.
When it comes to open source alternatives to Big Tech web browsers like Chrome or Safari it is hard to go wrong with Mozilla's Firefox. First introduced as Firefox in 2004, the browser quickly grew in popularity as an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. The browser continued to grow and met its major challenger when Google introduced Chrome. At present Firefox is the fourth most popular web browser behind the three leading Big Tech browsers.
Firefox boasts a great deal of privacy advantages over the mainstream default browsers. First of all, it is owned and developed by a non-profit so tracking user data is not their primary source of revenue. Firefox also releases its code as open source meaning that it is open for the world to see, so you know exactly what the browser is doing when running on your machine.
Recent versions of Mozilla's browser have also introduced a powerful number of features which can streamline your online experience. They currently offer a password manager, page translation, anti-fingerprint tracking and ad-blocking, multi-device sync so that you don't lose your tabs and bookmarks when juggling devices, and Mozilla has also introduced their own VPN service in a partnership with Mullvad.
But where Firefox really shines is with its massive library of browser extensions.
One of the more interesting privacy specific extensions provided with this browser is the Facebook Container extension, which explicitly blocks any Facebook tracking cookies which may be trying to track your online activities. This will not stop Facebook from tracking your behavior on their own websites, but any of their off-site tracking attempts will be blocked. One sad point here is that the container only applies to Facebook and not other known trackers. This can be improved by adding other extensions to your browser like Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Firefox also offers a Multi-Account Container extension so that your data is not shared across tabs. This extension isolates the activity between open browser tabs. This way your behavior on Instagram does not directly influence the results seen in your Amazon shopping tab. The browser also ships with their Enhanced Tracking Protection in the desktop application which stops cross-site tracking attempts in their tracks.
The greatest strength of Firefox is its flexibility. Users can add privacy enhancing features as needed by simply adding extensions to their browser. While not perfect, Firefox is a great start for those of you who might be trying to take their first steps beyond the Big Tech ecosystem. Their VPN service has also increased the all-in-one value of Firefox.
If you love Firefox and are looking to step your privacy game up a notch there are loads of forks with even more privacy oriented features.
DuckDuckGo's famous private search has grown into something even better. DuckDuckGo now offers their own web browser which is available on MacOS, Windows, Android, and iOS. The browser blocks third-party trackers by default and allows you to fully clear the browser of all session data with a single stylized click.
One great feature of DuckDuckGo Browser is their automatic cookie declining feature: When you visit a new website instead of being bombarded with banners asking you to either accept or reject cookies, the browser will automatically reject them and close the invasive pop-up with no need for user interaction!
The browser also blocks site pop-ups asking you to sign into services using Google. The DDG browser also comes with DuckPlayer which can provide a smooth ad-free way of watching YouTube videos, and they have recently announced an upcoming VPN service.
Beyond protecting you through the browser alone DuckDuckGo also offers an email privacy protection service. This service allows you to create an @duck.com email alias addresses which can be used for signing up for services you may not wish to give your primary email address to. It also allows you to automatically create "private" randomized Duck addresses which can be easily blocked or deleted when you no longer need them.
DuckDuckGo is great browser with some nice additional features which protect you beyond your browser. Their built-in extra features like email protection are a refreshing open source response to Safari's Big Tech email protections.
Mullvad has a long standing place as VPN provider that truly cares about its users and their privacy. With a zero-log policy and proven transparency, Mullvad has been providing a secure VPN service since 2009. Earlier this year, Mullvad and the Tor Project teamed up to release a browser custom built with all the privacy settings of the Tor Browser, but which is configured to tunnel traffic through Mullvad's VPN instead of the onion network. This not only gives great advantages in connection speeds and performance, but the traffic is less likely to be blocked if a website is suspicious of known Tor exit node IP addresses.
When using Mullvad browser, your browser fingerprint matches that of other Mullvad users, in the same way that the Tor browser does. All third-party trackers you may come across while surfing the web are blocked with uBlock Origin (also available as a Firefox extension) and the browser itself does not collect any telemetry data. According to the team at Mullvad this partnership with the Tor Project solved a longstanding issue in creating a private internet experience, namely that of a truly private browser.
What stands out the most about Mullvad browser is the level of trust possible with their company. Mullvad has a proven track record of not logging user data. When presented with a search warrant in 2023 and asked to turn over user data, Mullvad could not comply with the request because there was no information available. This is the greatest example of precisely why zero-logging is important for online privacy.
For users who need all of the privacy provided by the Tor Browser, but are looking for a bit more speed, Mullvad Browser is a great choice for protecting yourself online.
Released in 2018, Brave Browser is built with privacy in mind. The team at Brave wanted to approach internet advertising in a new way and their built-in adblock and anti-tracking software thins down the onslaught of ads, while presenting the user with "optional" ads which they can view in exchange for cryptocurrency tokens. They were one of the first browsers to introduce support for .onion websites and the browser can navigate through the Tor network with no additional steps.
Brave Browser comes out of the box with many privacy-oriented features installed. These include multiple cryptocurrency features like a built-in wallet, a privacy protecting suite called Brave Shield, a video chat application Brave Talk which is built upon the open source project Jitsi, and they have recently introduced a VPN service.
One unique aspect of Brave Browser is that they randomize your browser fingerprint when visiting a new site. This fights back against cross-site tracking which can profile you while browsing through the internet. Their privacy Shield combines features you can only get on Firefox by adding certain extensions like NoScript and HTTPSEverywhere.
Brave is built upon Chromium, which may turn some of the more vehement anti-Googlers away. There have also been some questionable business practices by the company, such as pushing their paid VPN service out to browsers without informing users and their cryptocurrency involvement that may be an issue for some users. In addition, the company was called out in 2020 for auto-completing URL with affiliate links they profited from.
Overall, Brave seems like a solid choice in the privacy space, but some do not like its involvement in the crypto scene.
The first four browsers are well-known options within the online privacy space. The next few browsers are smaller projects which deserve their time in the spotlight for their unique approach to online privacy.
Puffin Secure Browser aims to set themselves as your cloud-powered internet browser. Their cloud servers operate as a proxy that stands between your web browser and the world wide web. When sites try to track your online behavior, they see the accumulated behavior of many users which turns your personal browser fingerprint into a giant smeared mess of data.
This proxy-based remote browser has the great cybersecurity advantage that your local machine is not interacting directly with any websites which may be hosting malicious code. This remote-browser functionality is not only a shining pearl, one notable downside to this system is that end users need to place their full trust in Puffin. Their centralized cloud-to-web functionality also makes their servers a potential man-in-the-middle attack threat.
Another drawback is the lack of iOS support. The browser removed the full browser from iOS and it is currently only available in a limited version. Where they do make up for this is being one of the first browsers to take the leap to programming specifically for smart TVs. Most people have a smart TV at home, but the software installed doesn't come with privacy in mind. Having a privacy-focused group working to protect this new technology is a nice step towards improving online privacy and security.
There is no debating that people love Firefox. Some folks have taken this love to a new level and have developed a number of different forks which claim to provide more privacy than vanilla Firefox. A major perk of these browsers is that they are all open source projects which offer full code transparency. As such they are not driven by generating profits, but are solely focused on making the web a free and safe digital space.
PaleMoon's motto is "Your browser, Your way" and their web browser does just that. With PaleMoon you can fully customize your browser experience with a number of non-Firefox add-ons. The browser also restricts itself to running as a single process on your local machine, unlike Firefox which spills over into multiple processes. PaleMoon's focus is to provide a stable and efficient browsing experience which can run on modern hardware as well as legacy hardware without dropping in performance.
The project's main website provides extensions, add-ons, layout themes, and language packs which allow you the user to build yourself the browser you have always wished for.
Originally forked from Mozilla's Firefox as IceWeasel, GNU IceCat is a privacy-focused fork which aims to create an entirely free browser. All code is open for review and tinkering, and it has pushed itself forward as trademark resistant, inline with their goal of creating free software.
If you have a strong philosophical commitment to free software it is hard to go wrong with GNU IceCat.
Waterfox is another Firefox fork which aims to protect its users by disabling telemetry which is gathered by the Firefox browser. The browser also disables the Pocket feature which comes installed in Mozilla's browser. Waterfox is compatible with the massive volume of extensions available to not only Firefox, but also to Chrome and Opera. One nice feature that is included is the ability to open private browser tabs without needing to open an entirely new browser window. This makes navigating the web a much smoother experience.
One feature which sets Waterfox apart from the others is its Oblivious DNS which protects your online activity from the eyes of your ISP.
Private and anonymous - these words are often jumbled together when people are talking about online security, but they are not the same. Something being private, does not mean that you are anonymous, nor does anonymity automatically mean something is private. Bitcoin transactions are technically anonymous, but are not private if anyone can view them at any time.
There are two more browsers on our list which take the jump from private towards true anonymity: Tor Browser and Hyphanet.
The Tor Browser works by routing your web traffic through a number of volunteer operated relays which mask your IP address. Each relay only knows the connection of the sending node and by the time your request reaches its final destination, the website will only see the IP of your randomly determined exit node. One advantage of using the Tor network, compared to other I2P solutions, is that you can surf the clearweb in addition to .onion sites hosted within the Tor network itself.
The Tor Browser allows activists, journalists, and political dissidents to communicate securely and freely. The Tor Project, the development team behind Tor, is a non-profit organization and is not dependent upon generating ad revenue for support. Operated by volunteers and donations, the Tor Project can operate freely to protect online privacy and human rights around the globe.
The biggest downside to using the Tor Browser is that it tends to be slower than a standard web browser. When routing traffic through the various relays which exist around the globe, the traffic will be throttled to the speed of the slowest connection. Due to malicious activity, some sites will automatically block users from connecting via the Tor network, but many others have created .onion sites. The New York Times, BBC, and even Facebook have created .onion sites so that you can securely access their sites via Tor no matter where you are.
Hyphanet, formerly known as Freenet, is its own peer-to-peer internet which focuses on providing a censorship-resistance platform for secure and anonymous online communication. Hyphanet is used to visit "freesites" which are hosted throughout the peer-to-peer network, similar to how Tor hidden services are only accessible through the Tor Browser. Users communicate through decentralized nodes which relay traffic between users. All data is encrypted both on the end users device and on the nodes themselves to ensure that it remains secure.
Hyphanet's goal is fighting censorship and protecting the freedom of expression. By operating in a decentralized manner, they are able to connect citizens living in oppressive regimes to those outside their borders and help them spread news which would otherwise be silenced.
Hosting on Hyphanet is easy and anyone can create a "freesite" which they can use to make their voice heard. This data, not being centrally hosted, is stored in an encrypted partition of the user's hard drive and is edited based upon the popularity of the content. Hyphanet's features of webhosting, chats, and search all operate by utilizing some of the end users bandwidth and device storage. For some users, this data being stored on their device is a major red flag because they do not know exactly what kind of material is being stored on their personal devices.
Let's get down to brass tacks. The best private browser totally depends on what your needs and interests are. If you are an avid VPN fan, then built-in VPN support will be a priority. If you cannot stand the thought of touching proprietary software, GNU IceCat is a better choice. I, myself, would give the following recommendations, one for the average user just looking for an easy-to-use daily browsing experience and the other for those in need of extreme privacy.
With its nearly endless number of privacy enhancing extensions, expanding list of extra features like VPN support and file sharing, and a strong commitment to opensource software, Firefox takes the top spot in our best private browsers recommended for the general user. Their auditable code lets us feel secure that there is nothing nefarious going on behind the browser window and their status as a non-profit also assures us that Mozilla is putting the user experience first, not their profit margin. Firefox is also a private browsing solution not built upon Google's Chromium, which is a nice perk for those of us seeking to distance ourselves from anything Google.
With Firefox you can start surfing the web privately right after installing the software. Any additional needs that might arise are easily met by installing extensions or add-ons like uBlock Origin, which is going to be broken in Google Chrome with upcoming changes. There are also a number of great extensions for Firefox available from the Electronic Frontier Foundation which can help you strengthen your browser's privacy.
The vast amount of customization options available in Firefox make it our all-around best private browser as it can easily be configured to fit the unique security needs of each user.
We picked DuckDuckGo for their number of great features, adblocking, anti-tracking, email protections, and their soon to come VPN. DuckDuckGo is available with a dedicated application for most devices including mobile. It plays nice with the vast majority of websites without breaking or slowing down. It also provides a smooth YouTube experience without interrupting you with ads every 30 seconds.
We are looking forward to seeing what kind of progress they make in the future.
(Full disclosure, I have been using DDG since they first introduced their mobile apps and have yet to have a negative experience with them.)
If your threat model requires anonymity, the Tor Browser is hard to beat. Built for privacy and anonymity, your communications will remain secure and will be difficult to link to your person. Many major new organizations have created .onion sites so that sources can contact them to make sure that important news reaches global discussion. The Tor Browser is operated by volunteers around the world who make sure that the network remains operational and if one node gets shut down, another can keep running and moving traffic.
While it may not be the best for streaming YouTube videos while making dinner, Tor is a necessary tool for activists, journalists, whistleblowers and many more.
What do you think of our ratings? Is your favorite browser missing from this list? Did we overlook some key features that may have impacted our rating? If so, please reach out to us on our social media pages and let us know. We are always eager to learn more from the privacy community. By working together we can make the internet a safer place for everyone.