[NOTE: See update at the end of this article. Some important new options are available.]
Several years ago, I wrote a comprehensive article on choosing a secure and private browser. I called it Browser Safety: Choose Your Weapon. But I decided it was time to update this article and focus instead on privacy. Security is not really a key differentiator these days. Of the top five desktop browsers today – Chrome (67%), Edge (9.7%), Safari (9.6%), Firefox (7.6%) and Opera (2.8%) – three of them (Chrome, Edge, Opera) are based on the same software “engine”: Google’s Chromium. The security of the browser is mostly in the engine, so these browsers are effectively the same in that regard. So I think the most important question to ask today is: which is the most private browser?
Choosing a Private Browser
Before we get into privacy, I do want to say that security is important in a web browser. And Chrome has had some really bad security issues over the last year. But Google fixed them quickly. All software has bugs, full stop. While we can use number of bugs as a metric, we have to temper that by realizing that the most popular browser will be targeted most by hackers and give credit Google for rapidly responding when the inevitable bugs are found.
To me, the real differentiator with modern browsers is privacy. Most browsers are fast enough and come with plenty of great usability features. But there are stark differences in how browser makers approach data collection and prevention of tracking. Google is an ad company – 80-90% of their revenue is from advertising. Google’s whole business model depends on data collection and tracking. It’s a direct conflict of interest to privacy. So choosing a private browser is easy: anything but Google Chrome.
Let’s Meet the Contenders
Let me first give you my definition of “best”. While it’s important to choose a browser that has lots of great privacy features, it’s also crucial to evaluate how easy it is to achieve the most private settings. Ideally, you want privacy right out of the box. Why? Because frankly most people won’t change the defaults. That said, if you’re reading this article, you probably have more than a passing interest in privacy and would be willing to put in the effort to tweak some settings. So I’ll consider both cases.
There are (thankfully) several interesting options to consider for the best private browser and new ones are popping up regularly. (I’ll do my best to keep this article up to date.) But to me there are three top contenders:
- Brave (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux)
- Firefox (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux)
- Tor (Windows, Mac, Android, Linux)
There are several others in this space: Opera, Epic, Waterfox, Vivaldi, DuckDuckGo, and more. It’s wonderful that there are so many organizations vying to make a private browser. I’ll be keeping my eye on these and any newcomers. (See below for updates on this!!)
You may note the absence of Apple’s Safari browser in this list. While I personally believe Safari is a decent browser in terms of privacy features, Apple does make a small portion of its revenue from ads and Safari isn’t available for Windows or Android. So I ruled it out.
Comparing the Competition
The Brave browser is based on Google’s open source Chromium engine, but they have fastidiously de-Googled it. Brave blocks online ads, website trackers and browser fingerprinting by default, which is wonderful. Brave also has a top-notch private search engine that actually uses a custom web indexer. (Most other private search engines use Google, Bing or Yahoo search results and just strip out the tracking.) The weird thing about Brave is their Brave Rewards program. It uses Basic Attention Tokens (BAT), which is a crypotcurrency, to reward people who are willing to see some ads. It’s a complicated thing, but it gives content creators a chance to reach you while supposedly preserving your privacy.
Mozilla’s Firefox browser is the biggest player in this list, though that’s not saying much in a Chrome-dominated world. It uses a custom browser engine (Gecko) and is backed by the Mozilla Foundation. Firefox blocks third party cookies and browser fingerprinting by default, but not ads. Also, sadly, Firefox’s default search engine is Google. However, you can (and should) change to a more privacy-respecting search engine like DuckDuckGo, Startpage or Brave Search. And you can easily add wonderful privacy plugins like uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger, DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials, ClearURLs and Skip Redirect to seriously harden this browser.
The Tor Browser is based on Firefox, but is hyper-focused on privacy – or more accurately, anonymity. The Tor Browser uses the Tor Network to prevent the websites you visit from seeing your real IP address. It’s a convoluted and slow process called onion routing which is way beyond the scope of this article, but the bottom line is that it protects your identity at the cost of browsing speed. By default, Tor blocks trackers, fingerprinting and ads. The default search engine is DuckDuckGo. Tor has two main drawbacks: it’s very slow and you’ll find that you’ll have to do a lot more CAPTCHAs. Some sites might even block you outright.
And the Winner Is…
As you may already suspect, my answer here is: it depends. However, the choice is pretty easy to make based on your answers to some simple questions.
Are you likely to dig into the privacy settings and install some privacy plugins in order to achieve a highly-customized and private experience? Then Firefox is your best option here, hands down. It’s fast, it’s feature-packed, and when properly hardened, it’s a very private browser. We really need to support non-Chromium browsers, too. Consider donating to the Mozilla Foundation.
If you don’t have the time or energy to do all the above work, then Brave is a slam dunk. The Brave browser has excellent privacy settings right out of the box. I would personally ignore the Brave Rewards stuff, but that’s up to you. If you accidentally enable it and want to turn it off, check this article for help.
Brave and Firefox are both adding new privacy features constantly, so they’ll both (hopefully) keep getting better over time.
Do you truly need to surf the web anonymously? If hiding your true identity is important, then your best option is the Tor browser. I think this is generally a rare situation for most people, but the reason I included Tor in this list is because I think it’s likely that most people will want to do some anonymous browsing sometimes. So Brave or Firefox would be your “daily driver” with Tor kept in the wings for special situations.
I need to update this article more thoroughly, but I wanted to quickly note some important new options for private web browsers. Also, note that Firefox has continued to add great privacy features and enabled more privacy settings by default. It’s still my preferred browser (with uBlock Origin plugin).
- Mullvad. VPN maker Mullvad has released a browser in conjunction with the Tor team. It’s basically Tor Browser without the Tor network. For most people, using the Mullvad browser with a good VPN service (like Mullvad or Proton) is a great option for private browsing.
- Librewolf. This browser is yet another Firefox-based private browser, which includes uBlock Origin by default. It’s sort of a “hardened” version of Firefox.
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