Many people know that their internet browsing is not particularly private, but most aren’t aware of how much they are being tracked.
In this guide, I will explain the most common tracking methods, and how to overcome them and keep your internet usage private.
Changing your browser or search engine won’t necessarily protect you from online surveillance. For that, you’ll need to take extra precautions.
The big problem with specific web browsers and search engines is that they collect your personal information and track you without your knowledge. This is how Google makes its money; collecting as much information about you as possible and then delivering targeted ads.
Your results are analyzed, registered, and stored on a typical search engine. Your choice of words and preference of the websites you visit are logged, and the next time you search for something similar, the search engine will automatically feed you results based on previous searches.
This is the so-called filter bubble.
In short, you do not have access to the entirety of the information on the internet but to a selected part of it, carefully put together by your search engine, Google, let’s say.
This can lead to the creation of prejudices, a confirmation bias thinking, and narrow-minded perspectives.
So let’s take a look at some alternatives to Chrome and Google search that actually protect your privacy.
But wait, what about incognito mode?
In a word, no.
Private browsing or incognito mode only stops your browser from storing data about your online activity. Your search history and the websites you visit will not be visible on your computer, and your browser won’t store cookies, so it is private in that sense, but there are many other ways your privacy is impeded from outside your home.
I discuss issues with standard web browsers and search engines that collect personal information and track users without their knowledge.
I also provide alternatives to Chrome and Google search that protect privacy and explain why private browsing or incognito mode is not actually private.
I list several browsers that protect privacy, including Firefox, Tor Browser, Waterfox, Brave, Pale Moon, Firefox Focus, and Epic Browser.
Finally, I discuss search engines that respect privacy, including Startpage, DuckDuckGo, SearX, and Disconnect Search.
Around 5% of internet worldwide use Mozilla Firefox as their main browser. This open-source project is known for its customization options and security features. To get the most out of Firefox, you need to make a few configuration edits, but they are simple to apply, making it an excellent browser for privacy.
Compared to Chrome, the Firefox Quantum browser from Mozilla steps up to the level with its browsing speed. It’s a genuine quantum leap from the old Firefox in this regard.
Generally speaking, Mozilla has always been very responsive and committed to the users’ reactions, and it usually comes with increasingly innovative and imaginative add-ons and functionalities.
However, as I’ve said before if you want to truly make Firefox a strong shield against information leaks and potential attacks, there are add-ons that you must install. A very interesting utility is the Containers one, which treats every tab as a singular space separate from all others. This increases privacy a lot. Download Firefox here.
Tor Browser Firefox in a tin-foil hat. It is a Firefox variant that is primarily focused on security and privacy. It can connect to the Tor Network, a highly private and largely anonymous network connecting to dark-web sites.
The dark web is a subset of the internet that isn’t accessible through “normal” browsers.
A common misconception about the dark web is that it is only used for illegal activity. While there are illegal websites on the dark web, such as drug and weapons marketplaces, disturbing content, and radicalism, there are also legitimate reasons to keep a website hidden from the general public and its users anonymous.
Research: Dark web price index – 2021
Support groups for people with stigmatized conditions such as HIV/AIDS or those in countries where their sexual orientation may put them in danger, such as places for whistleblowers to submit leaks.
There is also the misconception that the dark web is dangerous and that by connecting, you’re likely to become the target of hacker-murderers and have your murder live-streamed. This is not based on reality.
First off, all browsing is done in Private Mode from the get-go. There is no non-private browsing, meaning no saved passwords, history, or cookies.
Then, it naturally uses the Disconnect.me search engine, known for its complex encryption algorithms and privacy-focused searching (see below in the private search engines section).
Most importantly, the team behind Tor is constantly looking for new things to add and update, keeping the browser up to date with technological advances while identifying and patching vulnerabilities quickly. Visit the Tor Project.
Waterfox is another of Firefox’s cousins. Mozilla seems prolific and diverse, with a solid foothold in the privacy-focused browser domain.
The difference is that Waterfox eliminates the issues in Firefox by coming pre-configured for privacy.
No more updates or security fixes are being made for Firefox 56. So, any problems it had back then will remain there. Download Waterfox.
The Brave browser is based on Chromium, the engine that Chrome uses. We’re finally out of the Firefox loop. So, if you’re familiar with Chrome, you should check out Brave as a privacy-focused alternative.
It is similar to Chrome, fulfilling any Google fan’s desire to see Chrome 2.0 come to life. However, it takes a lot of bravery to try because of its ties with Google (which is not a privacy-focused company).
We just can’t help but be a little wary of Brave. Download it here.
Coming from Mozilla’s backyard, Pale Moon is yet another Firefox-based browser that did, however, distance itself from it in several ways. However, it retains its roots and supports most of Firefox’s add-ons.
It’s another face of Firefox, one of many out there. Moreover, it may have problems displaying some web pages out there. Check it out here.
A privacy-focused mobile browser based on Mozilla’s creation takes the good things and leaves out the bad. Just like the Tor browser, it uses a constant Private Mode system.
Firefox Focus isn’t the most user-friendly but is open-source and privacy-oriented, so it’s worth a shot. Download it here.
The Epic browser is based on Chromium, which throws the ball back into Google’s court. It’s open-source and focused on providing privacy for users.
Epic Browser is still based on Google’s browsing technologies, using their protocols and regulations, and therefore should be viewed as potentially untrustworthy.
Even though they’ve said that Epic retains none of the tracking features that Chrome has, we can’t be fully assured of this. After all, Google is the biggest ads platform in the world, and there’s no changing that.
Just like Brave, it’s open-source that’s worth checking out if you’re looking for something different. It’s available here.
What is their problem with normal browsers such as Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.?
The biggest issue is that they are all proprietary, closed-source applications created by companies that make millions of dollars selling personalized advertising based on user behavior.
Google has publicly admitted that Chrome does affect its users’ privacy, and it even issued a clear analysis of how this happens.
Sure, you can increase privacy and deactivate some invasive features, but the system isn’t built with privacy in mind.
Check out our guide on privacy-friendly Google alternatives if you want to move away from Google services.
Moreover, these companies participated in NSA’s PRISM program, an initiative spearheaded by the American National Security Agency. Its express purpose was to collect information and communications to be used in court.
Well, Google, for instance, offered its full collaboration. Apple did the same.
In the end, although the team has issues that are being worked on by the team, Firefox offers the best choice in terms of usability, privacy, and security.
It was the first browser to incorporate the “Do not track” feature, which says a lot about its professional ethics and principles.
Privacy-focused search engines have been trending for a while now, with people becoming more aware of the amount of data they share with search engines, which is a good thing.
The following is a list of five search engines that protect your privacy by removing identifiers from your search sessions.
Startpage provides results based on Google but without any tracking.
Interestingly, StartPage used to include results from Yahoo but removed them due to alleged collaboration between Yahoo and NSA.
Let’s talk a little about the StartPage experience:
In terms of privacy, there are some things we need to look over:
First, the company behind StartPage is based in the Netherlands, renowned for its firm attitude toward supporting privacy. However, the majority of its servers are located in the US. This might be worrying for some. However, you can use non-US and non-EU servers, and any website can be proxied.
It’s been given an A+ Qualys SSL security report.
The proxy feature means you access a website through a third-party server vetted by StartPage.
The proxy is an excellent privacy-oriented feature for a search engine. The idea is based on the principles of IP masking. It keeps your IP safe and invisible to the websites you visit. The downside is that it will slow down your surfing speed. Click here to test StartPage for yourself.
I think StartPage is an exceptional search engine for those who want the convenience of Google without their every move being tracked.
In terms of popularity, no one comes even close to DDG (DuckDuckGo). It’s by far the most well-known private search engine.
Its CEO once publicly stated that even if the FBI came to them asking for personal information on its users, it couldn’t comply because they don’t keep any data.
However, it uses Yahoo’s databases, which have been found to collaborate with the NSA, which is worrying. Even though DDG continues to say that it doesn’t retain any user information, you can’t help but have some suspicions.
Let’s see how their search results fare:
As I said earlier, the way DDG money is through ads. However, they are untargeted. Also, there’s no problem in spotting them from the real search results.
One of the most important aspects is that DDG is based in the US and is thus subject to the legislation in effect. For instance, the Patriot Act could be reason enough for the US government to force its hand to give out user information effectively. It could even prevent them from warning their users of this using the same regulations.
Its servers are on Amazon, another company subject to the US government’s legislation and rules.
DDG received an A+ Qualys SSL security report.
Regarding features, DDG has one of the best addons ever made for a search engine in terms of efficiency.
The “bangs” feature allows you to customize your search parameters by introducing certain commands before your search terms. For instance, type “!guk” at the beginning of your search to get only Google UK results.
However, these bangs will take you directly to the websites without proxying them first. This reduces privacy, no matter what anyone says.
DuckDuckGo is the most user-friendly private search engine out there and provides great privacy to its users. Its popularity is well deserved.
However, the fact that it’s a US company does take away from its faith quite a bit. Visit DuckDuckGo.
This private search engine is relatively unknown but steadily gaining popularity, especially among tech-savvy and privacy advocates. We’ll get to that in a second.
Most importantly, SearX is open-source, and anyone can inspect its code. It’s also very simple to use and configure.
Now, I believe it makes SearX the most secure and privacy-oriented search browser on the internet. You can create an instance that you only control on a private server.
This means that no logs are kept, ever!
The way it deals with search results is even more interesting:
Since it has no advertising, it can be said that SearX is entirely a non-profit project, and since it’s open-source, anyone can contribute to it, even financially. It’s just like Wikipedia in this instance.
In terms of privacy, you can’t find out if your searches are logged by SearX operators, not even on the official instance of the search engine. However, the same goes for StartPage and DDG as well. There are no guarantees they are “private” in the strictest sense of the word.
Creating your own SearX private search instance is the only way you can guarantee your searches are not logged. This aspect makes SearX the most secure private search engine out there.
It received an A in the Qualys SSL security report.
There’s less chance you’ll be spied on by any government agencies when using SearX, even the official instance, but at least when creating your instance.
It’s an intuitive and easy-to-use search engine that’s sure to rise in the ranks very quickly. Visit SearX.
You might have heard of Disconnect through their browser extensions. They’re highly regarded in terms of privacy and security. The Disconnect Search addon for Firefox and Chrome is one of them.
There is also a Disconnect VPN that has the same basic protocols and functions as the search engine.
Disconnect search results at a glance:
Just like SearX, the fact that it has no ads or any affiliated marketing means that they are a non-profit product, the search browser, that is. The VPN, however, is premium.
Regarding privacy, all of the servers are based in the US and are part of Amazon. This increases the chances that government agencies could be snooping around your business.
It received an A in its Qualys SSL security report.
Disconnect Search allows you to hide your IP when browsing the internet and lets you do this from your favorite search engine. Try Disconnect now.
Your search history says a vast amount about you. How often have you searched for the symptoms of some medical complaint, relationship advice, or financial worries? Chances are, at least “some.”
This is data that most people wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with the general public, and frequently even their family.
Well, most search engines collect this data to target you with ads based on what you’ve searched for. Google, for example, is the biggest ads network in the world (you didn’t think Google search was free).
Whenever you’re signed into a browser, whichever services you’re logged into will be able to track your internet usage. This can make using the internet more enjoyable, and there are many good reasons to log into a browser, but your privacy is gone when you do so.
Take Google Chrome, for example. You log in through your Gmail account and can use all the Google services, such as Google Drive, YouTube, Maps, and Photos, without having to log in each time you want to use each one. However, this means that Google amasses an enormous amount of your data.
Even when you’re not logged in, Google still gets all the information related to your Chrome use but is not specifically linked to your profile.
Your internet service provider can see practically everything you do online, from websites you visit to services you connect to, such as Netflix or Spotify.
Most websites these days have HTTPS, which encrypts your connection so ISPs won’t see what your type into Reddit or Messenger, but they will know that you’re using them, and precise time. Your data provider will also see your location when using a mobile device.
You can block your ISP from being able to see any of your internet activity by using a good VPN service.
If you don’t know much about this, we’ve published a great beginners guide to VPNs that can help you decide if you need one.
Your public IP is a set of numbers that identify your location. Websites you visit and services you use can see your public IP address, which is how YouTube can block access to certain content based on your location.
A VPN allows you to change your IP address to that of a server in another country so you can access those services from anywhere.
Cookies are tiny files stored on your browser that identify information about you.
Websites often use them to determine if you’ve visited before, your preferences, or if you’ve opted to stay logged in. Cookies themselves aren’t particularly dangerous, but they’re terrible for personal privacy.
Private browsing or incognito mode stops your browser from storing cookies.
Browser fingerprinting is a more invasive form of tracking than cookies. It uses information your browsers send, such as type and version, operating system, timezone, language, screen resolution, and more.
While these may seem generic, they can be accurately used to identify you and your online activity.