Ranked: Best web browsers for security and privacy in 2020

Caleb

Laptop witha browser window with a lock on it.

In a listicle world where even the trivial is quantified, judged, and graded, let’s rank something important for a change: Which web browsers are best for protecting your security and privacy?

The contestants

First, we took measure of the goliaths: Google Chrome, the runaway leader in market share; Microsoft’s Edge, the upstart heir to the now-defunct Internet Explorer; Safari, a default choice for Apple users; and Firefox, the only major browser that is open-source.

Next, we dug a little deeper to assess the less popular but nonetheless powerful browsers that claim to prioritize your security and privacy: Brave, Opera, and Tor Browser.

Let’s see how these browsers fare in privacy and security.

 

7. Microsoft Edge

Microsoft Edge logo.

Microsoft has been keen to make Edge the browser of choice among Windows users, having retired Internet Explorer. Since its launch in 2015, Edge has expanded beyond Windows 10 to more operating systems, including Mac, Android, and iOS.

Microsoft clearly wants this browser to have the edge on its predecessor in terms of page load speeds, but what about its security and privacy?

The good

This year Microsoft made a significant shift in Edge’s design—as of January 2020, the browser is Chromium-based, which means part of its code is open-source. The browser itself updates its software at least once a week, mainly consisting of security updates. We can’t overstate enough how important it is to update your apps and devices even if it’s tedious to do so. It’s good to see that Edge is coming out with regular updates to patch security issues.

Microsoft has also rolled out Automatic Profile Switching, which is supposed to help switch between your work and non-work accounts easily.

The bad

A fundamental flaw in Edge’s security came to light this year, when security researchers revealed that Edge “send[s] persistent identifiers than can be used to link requests (and associated IP address/location) to backend servers.”

A company spokeswoman told ZDNet that “Microsoft Edge sends diagnostic data used for product improvement purposes, which includes a device identifier. On Windows, this identifier enables a single-click ability to delete the related diagnostic data associated with the device ID stored on Microsoft servers at any time (from Windows settings), something which is not offered by all vendors.”

She added: “Microsoft Edge asks for permission to collect diagnostic data for product improvement purposes and provides the capability to turn it off at any later point. This diagnostic data may contain information about websites you visit. However, it is not used to track your browsing history or URLs specifically tied to you.”

Regardless, such data collection can reveal much about the user’s identity, and not much can really be done about it.

You can see more on what Edge collects here, but the fact that the browser can identify your device alone is worrisome, and we’d avoid using it.

Would we recommend this browser? No.

 

6. Opera

Opera logo.

The creator of the CSS web standard, Hakon Wium Lie, developed Opera in 1995. The browser has since adopted much of Chromium’s code into its software and is now considered one of the more popular privacy-oriented browsers.

The good

The Opera browser has a built-in ad blocker and uses a tracker blocker that takes from the EasyPrivacy Tracking Protection List, which can help protect users from seeing ads and being tracked by advertisers and other websites. It bases part of its code on Chromium, which is open-source and therefore can be scrutinized.

The bad

As with Chrome, Opera’s default window will cache your data, and its Private one won’t—although you can tweak this in your settings to make it so in the default browser window.

While Opera does provide ways to customize your privacy and security, the opt-out method of securing and privatizing your browsing experience may not be appreciated by those more comfortable with browsers that provide it by default.

Opera also has a free built-in VPN that it bought in 2016. It’s a troubling addition to the browser, as it tracks bandwidth and logs usage, and Opera itself is owned by a company based in a country notorious for privacy violations. Browser beware.

Would we recommend this browser? No.

 

5. Apple Safari

Apple Safari logo.

Safari is only available on Apple products now, but for a short while it was found on PCs. Safari is the default browser for Mac, but like Microsoft’s Edge it plays second fiddle to Google Chrome in its popularity.

The good

Safari prevents suspicious sites from loading and alerts you to the potential danger. By running web pages in a sandbox, Safari also prevents malicious code on one page from affecting the entire browser or accessing your data.

In the few years since Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) feature launched, the browser appears to have prevented websites from tracking users, making it difficult for advertisers to target. It also helps camouflage digital fingerprinting and prevents third-party sites from leaving data in your cache by default, helping you stay anonymous online. In addition, Safari offers a range of useful extensions to safeguard your privacy.

The bad

Like Chrome and Edge, Safari is not open-source, so outsiders can’t scrutinize any of its code. Safari updates are offered at very irregular intervals, which is surprising given that it’s made by the world’s largest technology company. When compared with its rivals, Safari updates much more slowly. Mac users are arguably exposed to fewer internet vulnerabilities than PC users, but the lower frequency is still troubling.

Researchers from Google’s Information Security Engineering team recently found several security issues in the above-mentioned ITP anti-tracking system, claiming ITP actually leaks Safari users’ web-browsing habits. Some of these issues were addressed in later Apple security updates, but that may not be enough to quell suspicions of the browser.

Would we recommend this browser? Not until we see an open-source version, and even then maybe not.

 

4. Google Chrome

Google Chrome logo.

Over a decade has passed since the launch of Google Chrome, and it has since become the undisputed leader in browser market share, at almost 80%. Given its reputation for speed and the prevalence of Google services in our lives (web search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, etc.), it’s no surprise Chrome has become the most widely used web browser today. But how does it perform on your privacy and security?

The good

In addition to leading its competitors in update frequency and scanning for harmful downloads, Google automatically updates Chrome to the latest version every six to eight weeks, ensuring its users are always enjoying the latest browsing features. Part of its code is also open-source, which allows users to scrutinize, and also adopt, parts of its code.

Google has also encouraged hackers to find vulnerabilities in its own browser so the company can improve its product.

The bad

While the browser does offer the usual pop-up blocker and allows users to send a “do not track” request along with their browser traffic (which, by the way, does very little to stop sites from tracking you), one simply cannot ignore that Chrome belongs to the company that makes millions from knowing everything about you.

From automatically signing you in to the browser to a fishy location history policy, Google seems to be developing the habit of rolling out something unpopular before reeling it back in another update. There are ways around this, but Google is still using Chrome to learn about you and then monetizing that information.

Google did announce that they would eventually force third-party cookies to identify themselves on Chrome, but no word on when that will happen, nor whether this would actually stop trackers.

Chrome also boasts an extensive library of browser extensions, which offer a range of additional functionalities but at the cost of reduced privacy. Furthermore, since Chrome is a closed-source browser, no one can crack it open to see what (if anything) is hidden in the code. That said, this is no problem if you trust Google’s stance on privacy, and there is also an open-sourced version of Chrome available.

Would we recommend this browser? Not unless you want Google tracking everything, no.

 

3. Brave

Brave logo.

Brave was founded in 2016 by Brenden Eich, the former Mozilla head who also created JavaScript. While relatively new on the scene, Brave packs quite a punch in its fast-performing, privacy-focused, and minimalistic design. Having moved on from perpetual beta to a fully-fledged browser, it’s set to show us how it fares as a privacy-oriented product.

The good

Brave has several features that keep your browsing activity private, with a default ad blocker that also stops ads from tracking your online behavior, as well as a function to secure unencrypted sites with HTTPS when necessary.

 

Brave’s security settings allow you to select what data you want to delete whenever you close the app (including that from HTTPS Everywhere), block fingerprinting attempts, and keep scripts from loading. Brave settings provide plenty of ways to customize your browsing experience to be as secure as you want it.

In December 2018, Brave fully transitioned to the Chromium codebase, making it easier for users to carry over their Chrome extensions—though they should be wary of what data third-party extensions collect.

The bad

Brave’s new Tor tab may be private, but it falls short of Tor’s own privacy standards with a customizable window size that could be used to fingerprint your browsing.

The questionable

While Brave blocks ads, it has also launched its own ad program in April 2019. This has attracted some criticism and claims of hypocrisy, as it layers its own ads on top of the ads found on websites, allowing them to essentially profit from the sites without giving the creators anything.

Brave’s cryptocurrency, called the Basic Attention Token (or BAT), does allow users to anonymously pay publishers for their content through micro-donations and get a percentage of it back.

Its ICO raised a few eyebrows, however, not least because in the brief 30 seconds the coins were available, 40% of them ended up in the hands of a very small group of people. Inevitably, this drew suspicions that large advertising agencies had snapped up the tokens, which would seem to defeat the purpose of BAT in the first place.

A Brave developer has told ExpressVPN that 300 million BAT has been placed into a User Growth Pool to distribute to Brave users monthly as free grants and referral rewards, although this in itself seems to be a work in progress. The inclusion of a cryptocurrency within a browser is certainly novel, but it looks like it will take some time before it starts functioning as intended.

Would we recommend this browser? Yes, although be wary of using their BAT currency.

 

2. Mozilla Firefox

Firefox logo.

Of all the browsers featured in this ranking, Firefox is the only one that is developed by a nonprofit organization, Mozilla. The browser is well known for its customizability and has long been a favored alternative to its brethren from Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

The good

Firefox does not update as frequently as Google Chrome, but it does at least update within a regular timeframe. Given that the Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit, it’s impressive to see its coding volunteers constantly working to ensure Firefox is loaded with the latest security and browsing features within weeks.

Firefox offers a suite of security features that any internet user will appreciate: phishing and malware protection, blocking reported attack websites/web forgeries, and warning users when a site is trying to install add-ons.

Firefox is relatively lightweight, compared with its competitors. In keeping with the times, Firefox features “Content Blocking,” allowing users to block all trackers the browser detects. Firefox also provides users with the option to compartmentalize their browsers, preventing platforms like Facebook from tracking your activity outside of Facebook.

But most important, Firefox is the only widely used web browser that is completely open-source. Anyone can examine Firefox’s source code, making sure there are no sketchy elements (like tracking software) baked into the final product.

While Mozilla does heavily emphasize its default settings and the fact that it provides “strong privacy protection from the moment [users] install,” you can still customize a fairly detailed list of privacy and security settings, which include features like the ability to block cookies and third-party trackers and the level of security that you want.

The bad

Nothing, really. Firefox is quite a secure and private browser, you just need to manually customize it so that it is.

Would we recommend this browser? Yes.

 

1. Tor Browser

Tor browser logo.

Developed by The Tor Project in 2002, and based on Firefox’s browser, Tor Browser was built for users to access the internet anonymously via the Tor network. Your activity and identity are masked by Tor, which encrypts your traffic in at least three layers by “bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays” selected from thousands of volunteer computers.

Read: A beginner’s guide to Tor

The good

Most of Tor’s updates follow Firefox’s bug fixes and security patches. The updates are incredibly important to prevent anyone from exploiting bugs and security flaws in older versions of the Tor Browser.

The Tor Browser’s privacy is aided very much by its security—no one watching your connection can track your internet activity, nor can they identify you unless you explicitly identify yourself. Additionally, Tor does not track your browsing history and clears your cookies after every session. Tor also protects users from sites that try to fingerprint browsing history with its integration of NoScript. Based on tests of unique browser fingerprinting, only Tor can reduce the uniqueness of your fingerprint.

As we mentioned in our review of the Tor Browser, the process of bouncing your data through several relays makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to trace you and your activity. It’s not completely secure, as an FBI bust on the infamous Silk Road marketplace proved, but unless you’re running a high-profile and illegal operation on the Tor network, it’s unlikely that resources will be spent tracking down your browsing habits.

The bad

The Tor browser may actually be secure to a fault: Internet speed is likely to be affected as it routes traffic over three different hops through the Tor network, and it may break some sites because of its NoScript feature.

Be aware that law enforcement and ISPs can see who uses Tor, even if they don’t know what you’re doing on it. For maximum security, connect to a VPN first, and then start up the browser.

Read: How to combine Tor with a VPN

Would we recommend this browser? Yes. Just be careful about how you use it, like with any other browser.

The best web browser is…

Having evaluated these browsers, here’s how they rank:

 

  1. Tor Browser
  2. Firefox
  3. Brave
  4. Chrome
  5. Safari
  6. Opera
  7. Edge

Of course, there are many other important factors we could’ve included, such as browser speed and customizability. But for privacy and security, Tor Browser is ExpressVPN’s pick out of these popular web browsers.

The last step to secure and private browsing

As we’ve seen, each of these browsers has its respective strengths and weaknesses—including potentially tracking your web traffic and selling it to third parties.

And try as they might to give you a secure and private browser experience, the only way to protect all of your device traffic (from your ISP, for instance) is to use a VPN.

Instead of fiddling with customized browser settings, all you need to do is hit “connect,” and let our VPN safeguard your security and privacy as you enjoy the internet—from any device.

 

Caleb enjoys reading technology news, playing football, and consuming unwholesome amounts of steak. Preferably at the same time.