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Internet browsers that protect your privacy

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Recently, it has been difficult to find a subject that has been discussed as widely as privacy and security on the Internet. We think about the information that we send to Internet giants with every click. We follow subsequent cases of data leakage and controversial decisions taken by the owners of social networks. But do we consider the basic tools that we use to connect to the network? Internet browsers are not only divided into fast ones, slow ones, and those which use a lot of memory. They can respect privacy or, quite the opposite, be the first weak point in our protective shield.

A web browser is our window to the world. It is hard to name a computer program that we use more frequently. This is facilitated by an increasing number of web solutions supported from the browser level. A mailbox manager, graphic programs, text editors, online banking, social media, or entertainment platforms – all available via the most popular browser Google Chrome and similar browsers.

To say that they know a lot about us is like to say nothing. Browsers create the history of our activity on the Internet, know what we are interested in, how we spend our free time, and what size we wear. More and more often, the browser is a whole ecosystem combined with a login and a password that makes it possible to profile us perfectly. A modern browser is also a manager of accounts and passwords, even the most sensitive ones such as a trusted profile, banking, CMS or CMR logging data.

Our history and cookies pose a threat to our privacy and expose us to the risk of our personal date being taken over. Cookie files – or cookies – are small pieces of information sent by the website we visit and saved on our end device (computer, laptop, smartphone). Cookies contain various data necessary for the proper functioning of websites, e.g. prompts that we can use to log in to our mailbox or an online store. All web portals – search engines, information pages, online stores, websites of state offices and other public institutions – can function properly thanks to cookies. Cookies helps us to surf online and, at the same time, constitute an extraordinary database with the data of the user of a given computer.

It should be kept in mind that threats to our privacy can also come from advertisers and external tracking tools. As with Google, advertisers and special companies tracking online traffic want to record as much data as possible on our preferences and browsing history. The more data they have, the better ads they can display. The two tools they use for tracking are device fingerprinting and said cookies.

We leave digital footprint by using various Internet browsing devices when the website checks all their features, e.g. brand, device model, browser used, plugs installed, time zone, etc. Until it obtains sufficient information to identify and follow it, your device makes this data available to optimize the websites you visit. Websites want, for example, to know whether you use a laptop or a smartphone in order to select an appropriate font size and screen resolution. You can check how much advertisers and potential hackers know on the website of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called Panopticlick.

Safe browsers

Fortunately, not all browsers combine their work with collecting data about users, like for example Google Chrome. There are programs allowing you to surf online that do not register our every activity and protect us against trackers. Switching from Chrome to one of the following alternatives may drastically reduce the amount of data you unintentionally make available when surfing the Internet.

Internet browsers that protect your privacy

Mozilla Firefox

The browser with the fox was the most popular one chosen by Internet users for years. Due to the activities of Google (i.a. pre-installation on Android devices), it is past its prime (as far as popularity is concerned). When it comes to respecting the privacy of users, Firefox keeps winning the ranking in terms of data storage security. The Mozilla browser automatically protects our privacy when we visit websites and blocks tracking mechanisms, such as cookies or scripts from social networks.

The latest versions of the browser are equipped with Firefox Monitor, which searches the network in search of data leaks from user accounts. If the browser detects that information about us has been included in the Have I Been Pwned base (which has access to sets of accounts that have leaked to the Internet), it sends a notification with steps to be taken if we want to secure our data.

The ginger-haired fox has a mobile version, which allows us to use it on devices with iOS or Android systems. In addition, it protects against phishing, encrypts connections, blocks potentially dangerous software, and does not allow advertisers to track us.

The privacy aspect plays a primary role in Firefox. It is strongly emphasized in browser settings, where we can set the effectiveness of blocking our activity online.

Those who are particularly alive to the privacy aspect will find the option that removes cookies and browser history automatically each time the program is closed. After installing Firefox, it is worth spending a few minutes on personalized privacy settings and tailor them to our subjective needs.

Brave

Brave is one of the most popular browsers advertised as sensitive to privacy matters. It is an open-source browser based on Chromium (version of an open-source Chrome browser), which means that it will be relatively easy for Google browser users to switch to it (e.g. compatibility of extensions). However, unlike Chrome, Brave does not collect any data on our online activity. 

From the very first installation, Brave makes it easier to block tracking elements, without having to install external add-ons or plug-ins. The browser automatically blocks all third-party cookies and advertising plugs, whereas thanks to the built-in HTTPS Everywhere, it provides a secure encrypted connection even on older websites. Brave also offers protection of the digital footprint in the browser that we spoke about earlier.

An additional aspect that may encourage us to use this browser is its ability to earn money when surfing the Internet. The browser has a built-in widget that rewards us with the BAT cryptocurrency in exchange for casually watching advertisements that are displayed when surfing online. The company has an ambitious mission to create a new online economy, encouraging websites and creators not to rely on ads based on tracking.

Brave has introduced a system that makes it possible to directly reward creators and visited websites with the BAT tokens mentioned above. Thanks to a special opt-in form, which will sign us for a loyalty program, users display advertisements on special terms called Brave Ads, whereas users who decide to watch them earn 70% of advertising revenues that they can then use to reward their favorite creators.

Some called this hypocrisy if a “private” browser introduces an advertising program. Brave has also been criticized because it imposes its own ads on websites, while blocking ads of third parties. It should be kept in mind that it is not mandatory to join the program. Brave can enchant you with the transparency of the interface, the appearance, and the multitude of possible settings according to the user’s preferences, with the emphasis, of course, on privacy issues. Brave is available for desktops, Android, and iOS.

brave browser

Tor Browser

Tor is large-caliber weapon. One of the most recognizable browsers focusing on privacy and very often associated with activities on the darknet at the same time. It is so because of the high degree of anonymity that the program provides. This is specifically about the so-called onion routing, which sends information about our computer and IP address, encrypting them three times, and then distributes information through subsequent servers all over the world, losing our digital footprint this way.

The configuration of Tor makes it impossible to store any records concerning our online activity, and every time we close the session, the browser deletes the cache memory of cookies and browsing history. The browser itself is formatted to prevent digital footprint downloading and blocks all kinds of tracking elements.

Unfortunately, such redirection of traffic from the server to the server also has its drawbacks. Using Tor significantly slows down browsing websites and using the Internet. For this reason, a browser with an onion in the logo is difficult to use on a daily basis. 

Tor also blocks many plug-ins used by websites. For example, with maximum privacy settings, Tor will block the use of JavaScript (JavaScript may disclose user information), which may prevent you from using basic websites. Using Tor may also mean carrying out endless CAPTCHA verifications due to the special blocking mechanism for users using this tool. 

Tor is a solution for those who must protect their anonymity on the Internet threefold: journalists who do not support regimes, political opposition in non-democratic countries, and people who are censored because of their activity.

Using Tor does not differ substantially from using a regular browser. There is an address bar or a useful search engine that directs you to DuckDuck Go service. A significant difference arises when we approve the address of the website that we would like to visit in the browser bar. Our footprint is powerfully encrypted on the Internet and it is much more difficult to track us down. The IP address is invisible for the websites you visit thanks to the random redirection of the connection from the server to the server that makes it possible to lose track of the Internet user.

For some time, Tor has had a dedicated Android version.

Controvesial Opera

Many people consider Opera to be a browser which is definitely concerned about the privacy of Internet users. Unfortunately, the facts weigh against the browser, which debuted as a small Norwegian start-up just to be sold to a Chinese consortium in 2016. If you look at the terms and conditions of the browser, unfortunately, it will not make you feel optimistic.

opera

An additional aspect that can make users believe that Opera is a browser sensitive to privacy issues is its built-in VPN. Unfortunately, the solution offered by Opera is not a real VPN, we will not find full encryption of the system here, whereas our data is collected when you use it. Unfortunately, there are no free lunches, and any solution that does not take money from us must have a benefit in return. You can find a complete report on the VPN offered by Opera here.

Not only browser

Contrary to what some may think, not only cookies and browsing history can profile our activity on the Internet. Another weak point is using Google search engine. Fortunately, there is quite a good alternative to it in the form of DuckGo.

The search engine is available on desktop computers and as a plug-in for the most popular browsers (where we can set it as default for search queries in omnibox) and on mobile devices. The search engine is intuitive, whereas user settings (language, region, graphic aspects, or font) are stored in the cloud and protected with a password.

Creators boast that unlike competitors, DuckDuckGo does not store IP addresses or user search results and does not collect cookies. Thanks to this, we can be sure that no one uses our data to target advertising.  

It only takes comparison of the results for the same queries in Google and DuckDuckGo to see the difference. “Organic” links are very similar to what Google serves us. However, there is a huge difference in advertising content.

DuckDuckGo

VPN

 

VPN is a network connection that enables us to connect with another location safely, thus creating the impression that the Internet can be viewed from a completely different location or through another person. Your computer creates a virtual tunnel to the VPN server, whereas the entire Internet traffic passes through encrypted servers, protecting data from eavesdropping between the computer and the VPN server. This type of solution makes it virtually impossible to obtain data concerning us. It makes us anonymous and slightly slows down the speed of our connection at the same time.

Many VPN solutions can be found on the market, with the price starting at several dollars a month. A detailed test of particular solutions can be found here. Due to server and transmission costs, VPN is a paid solution.

Webmail client encrypting your messages

Perhaps not everyone is aware of that, but information concerning us can also be obtained on the basis of our mailbox. Fortunately, no one personally reads our correspondence. This work has been left to robots that anonymously browse our e-mails and profile advertisements on their basis. Unfortunately, as in the case of VPNs, if we want to be sure that we get a product without advertising, we have to pay for it.

ProtonMail

ProtonMail is one of the most popular webmail clients focusing on privacy issues. The company was established and launched in Switzerland by a team of scientists working, inter alia, at MIT and CERN, in 2014. ProtonMail uses PGP encryption standards for e-mail and stores all encrypted messages and attachments on Swiss servers. ProtonMail has a unique function of “self-destroying messages”.

One of the drawbacks of the client is that ProtonMail does not encode the subjects of e-mails, which is an inherent limitation of PGP. In addition, the client search function works only for subjects in the inbox. This is another functional constraint resulting from the integration of more encryption and security measures into the service. ProtonMail offers excellent applications for mobile devices (Android and iOS).  It is available for EUR 5 per month.

protonmail

Mailfence

Mailfence is an alternative to ProtonMail. Just like ProtonMail, it uses PGP to encrypt the confidentiality of our e-mails. The Belgian webmail client removes the IP address from our correspondence and offers protection for the messages we send in the form of additional safeguards, such as passwords. Mailfence is attractive not only because of its lower price (EUR 2.5 per month), but also because it has a very friendly interface.

Mailfence

Tutanota

The last webmail client worth mentioning is Tutanota with servers in Germany, the country whose legal solutions facilitate anonymity. Tutanota offers encryption of e-mails, depriving them of IP addresses, and encryption of our contacts and calendar for a fee of EUR 1 per month. Unlike the above, it does not support the PGP technology and you cannot import history from another mailbox.

tutanota

Summary

If we are users sensitive to privacy, these four basic tools – secure browser, VPN, search engine, and webmail client – should 100% meet our need for anonymity on the Internet. Good news is that a privacy-related trend promotes the development of better, faster, and more friendly solutions. Nowadays, browsers or webmail clients no longer lag behind the solutions offered by the giants such as Microsoft or Google in any significant respect. The prices of the solutions offered are also lower and lower and will continue to decrease as they become more and more popular. A few or several dozen Polish zlotys for tools that protect our anonymity on the Internet is really not much.

CONTACT WITH Editor in Chief

Michał Serwiński

+48/ 698 059 620‬
michal.serwinski@frsi.org.pl

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