September 21, 2021

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Stop Trackers Dead: The Best Private Browsers for 2021

12 min read
(Photo: Softulka/Shutterstock Images)

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 with tracking via cookies, your IP address, and other device-specific identifiers.

How Are You Being Tracked Right Now?

Cookies are small bits of data that websites deposit in your browser’s storage to keep track of logins and remember your site activity. They’re essential to making the web more useable, saving you from having to recreate your login and actions every time you use a site. The 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 advertising services) that other websites have access to for perusing your internet trail—are not the only threat to privacy. A more recent threat is fingerprinting, a way of using webpage headers and JavaScript to build a profile of you based on your system configuration. Your browser fingerprint can consist of your browser type and version, operating system, plug-ins, time zone, language, screen resolution, installed fonts, and more.

That means that even if you turn off third-party cookies (Google has stated it plans to remove support for them in its Chrome browser some time in 2023), sites can often still identify you via fingerprinting. In fact, fingerprinting is a more concerning privacy concern than cookies. You can delete cookies at any time, but, unless you get a new device, you can’t escape your digital footprint. Another issue is the long string of characters some sites add when you copy a web address. Those identify you as well, and a browser extension called ClearURLs can help protect this kind of tracking.

How Can You Prevent Web 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. This mode usually just hides your activities from the local machine’s history.

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 to 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.

How Do You Know if You Are Trackable?

The EFF (Electronic Freedom Frontier) organization 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 how unique your digital fingerprint is include AmIUnique and Device Info.

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If you still want to use Chrome or another browser without much tracking protection, you have recourse in plugins that may help protect your privacy, such as Decentraleyes, DuckDuckGo, PrivacyBadger, or uBlock Origin.

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. As always, if you have better solutions or disagreements, feel free to chime in below in our comments section.

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 Secure Browser Image

Avast is one of the few browsers included here with built-in VPN functionality, but unlike that in Opera, using it will cost you $5.99 per month, with discounts for multi-year signups. 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 Privacy Browser Image

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 the browser’s Shields block 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 do things like “randomizing the output of semi-identifying browser features” and turning off features commonly used to sniff device info. This meant that 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 this off if you’d rather not see those. 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 200 percent from its initial launch.

Platforms: Android, iOS, macOS, Windows

Bromite Image

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. (Microsoft Edge is also Chromium-based.). 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 that 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 even offers its own Fingerprinting Mitigations Test Page, though interpreting its results isn’t intuitive. Otherwise, Bromite looks and works a lot like the Android version of Chrome.

Platforms: Android

DuckDuckGo Image

The famed private search provider also makes a standalone mobile web browser, and on the desktop its DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials extension can help turn your 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 browser

Epic Privacy Browser Image

Like Opera, Epic Privacy Browser includes built-in VPN-like functionality with its encrypted proxy; this hides your IP address from the web at large. The company claims the Epic blocks ads, trackers, cryptomining, and even ultrasound signaling! It also blocks fingerprint tracking scripts and ads 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

Epic Privacy Browser Review

Firefox Image

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

Mozilla Firefox Review

Microsoft Edge Image

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 as Windows 11 approaches, with vertical tabs, forced HTTPS connections, sleeping tabs, performance boosts, and new accessibility features like enhanced contrast.

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 this 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, macOS, Windows. (Linux version in beta)

Microsoft Edge Review

Opera Image

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’s the only browser with a built-in VPN, and the company offers a gaming browser called Opera GX. PCMag’s VPN always correct me when I say 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 itself. 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, but it doesn’t have specific anti-fingerprinting features, aside from the list-based tracker blocking. 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

Opera Review

The Tor Browser Image

The Tor (“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 multi-step 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 it goes through knows the source but not the destination of the traffic, the middle ones know neither, and the last only knows 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 you’re browsing to after the traffic leaves one of the company’s VPN servers—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.

The downside? It slows down your browsing drastically—even more than a VPN would, since it goes through multiple hops between your device and the internet. That said, installing and starting up the Tor browser has gotten much simpler in recent years—both used to be multi-step processes. What’s more, if you crank up Tor to its safest level of protection and disable JavaScript, a lot of common sites won’t run—basically anything that features interactive content, such as YouTube. Tor lets you access sites that use its own onion protocol that’s separate from the standard web, often called the dark web, in addition to providing privacy and access to the standard web.

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

Tor Browser Review

Vivaldi Image

Vivaldi, an offshoot of Opera that also uses the Chromium browser code, is the ultimate in customizability among browsers. It also includes some 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

Vivaldi Review

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