Many people these days know that their internet browsing is not particularly private, but most aren’t aware of quite how much they are being tracked.
In this guide I will explain the most common methods of tracking, and how to overcome them and keep your internet usage private.
In this guide:
- Browsers that protect your privacy
- Issues with standard web browsers
- Search engines that respect your privacy
- How your browsing is being tracked
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 typical 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.
On a typical search engine, your results are analyzed, registered and stored. Your choice of words and preference of the websites you visit are logged, and next time you search for something similar, the search engine will automatically feed you results based on prior searches.
Related guide: Privacy Friendly Google Alternatives – Search, Mail & Maps
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.
Around 5% of internet worldwide use Mozilla Firefox as their main browser. This open source project is known for its customisation options and security features. To get the most out of Firefox, you do need to make a few configuration edits, but they are simple to apply which makes Firefox an excellent browser for privacy.
Compared to Chrome, Firefox Quantum browser from Mozilla really 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 individual tab as a singular space separated from all others. This increases privacy a lot. Download Firefox here.
Tor Browser Firefox in a tin-foil hat. It is actually 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 that can connect to dark-web sites.
The dark web is a subset of the internet that isn’t accessible through “normal” browsers.
There is a common misconception about the dark web which is that it is only used for illegal activity. Whilst there are illegal websites on the dark web such as drug and weapons marketplaces, disturbing content, and radicalism, there are also legitimate reasons for wanting to keep a website hidden from the general public and its users anonymous.
Research: Dark web price index – 2021
Support groups for people with stigmatised conditions such as HIV/AIDS, or those in countries where their sexual orientation may put them in danger, for example, along with 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, no history, and no 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 whilst identifying and patching vulnerabilities quickly. Visit the Tor Project.
Related guide: Should you use a VPN with Tails and Tor?
Waterfox is another of Firefox’s cousins. It seems that Mozilla is quite 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.
There are no more updates or security fixes being made for Firefox 56. So, any problems that it had back then are going to 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 definitely check out Brave as a privacy-focused alternative.
It sure is very similar to Chrome in many regards, fulfilling any Google fan’s desire to see Chrome 2.0 come to life. However, it takes quite a lot of bravery to try because of its ties with Google (which is definitely 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 a number of ways. It retains its roots however, and it 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, taking the good things and leaving out the bad. Just like the Tor browser, it uses a constant Private Mode system.
Firefox Focus isn’t the most user-friendly out there, but it 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 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 exactly 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 personalised advertising based on user behaviour.
Google has publicly admitted that Chrome does affect its users’ privacy, and it even issued a clear analysis of how this happens. Sure, you are given the option to increase privacy and deactivate some invasive features, but the system isn’t built with privacy in mind.
Related guide: How to block Google Analytics from tracking you
Moreover, these companies participated in NSA’s PRISM program, an initiative spearheaded by the American National Security Agency. Its express purpose was that of collecting information and communications to be used in court.
Well, Google, for instance, offered its full collaboration. Apple did the same.
In the end, although it does have its issues that are actually 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 their 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’re sharing with search engines, which is definitely 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 off, the company behind StartPage is based in the Netherlands, renowned for its firm attitude on supporting privacy. However, the majority of its servers are located in the US. This might be worrying for some. However, you can choose to 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 that 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.
My personal opinion is that 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, they couldn’t comply because they don’t keep any sort of information at all.
However, the fact that it uses the databases of Yahoo, who’s been found to collaborate with the NSA, is a worrying thing. 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 absolutely no problem in spotting them from the real search results.
One of the most important aspects to know 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 effectively force their hand to give out user information. It could even prevent them from warning its users of this using the same regulations.
Its servers are on Amazon, another company that subjects to the legislation and rules of the US government.
DDG received an A+ Qualys SSL security report.
In terms of 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 in question, 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 credence quite a bit. Visit DuckDuckGo.
This private search engine is relatively unknown but steadily gaining popularity, especially among the tech-savvy and privacy advocates. We’ll get to that in a second.
Most importantly, SearX is open-source, and it’s code can be inspected by anyone. It’s also very simple to use and configure.
Now for the reason I believe makes SearX the most secure and privacy-oriented search browser on the internet. You get to create your own individual instance that only you 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 going on, 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 essentially no guarantees they are “private” in the strictest sense of the word.
Creating your own SearX private search instance is, presently, the only way you can absolutely 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
I believe that there’s less chance you’ll be spied on by any government agencies when using SearX, even the official instance, but least of all when creating your own 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.
As far as privacy goes, all of the servers are based in the US and they’re 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 many times have you searched for the symptoms of some medical complaint, or 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 oftentimes even their family.
Well, most search engines collect this data so they can 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 actually 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 login each time you want to use each one. This does mean, however, that Google ammasses an enormous amount of your personal 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 which websites you visit and when, to services you connect to, such as Netflix or Spotify. Most websites these days have HTTPS which encrypts your connection so ISPs won’t actually see what your type into Reddit or Messenger, but they will see that you’re using them, and the precise time. When using a mobile device, your data provider will also see your precise location.
Related guide: How to encrypt your internet traffic
You can block your ISP from being able to see any of your internet activity by using a quality 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 various pieces of information about you. They are often used by websites 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 sent by your browser such as type and version, operating system, timezone, language, screen resolution, and more. Whilst these may seem generic, they can be accurately used to identify you and your online activity.