Web browser privacy is becoming a matter of concern after data privacy policies by the Technology giants came under scrutiny. A browser is your window to the world of the internet. It’s one place where your complete internet activity can be tracked, logged, and help create a digital persona of you. It could be peeking into your email, political leanings, type of news you regularly read, social media postings, online shopping, financial plans, the site you visit, chat forum you participate in, your IP address, etc. The intent behind all this data gathering is purportedly pushing targeted ads your way or supposedly improve the product experience.
But is everybody comfortable leaving such secretly collected data on servers of technology companies? We may be ok if it’s for customized ads, but when it extends to checking, for example, the purchases you make or a financial portfolio, that’s when your ears stand up and should know what’s the deal here. Especially in an era where children use phones and parents needs apps to control phones.
Why is Browser Privacy important?
Large tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon have business models based on users browsing data. Data is the new oil, and your data scattered across the web means different things to different entities depending on their end goal. Most companies are vague about how they store or process your information. Listed companies had had share prices crash when data breaches made it to the public domain.
Browsing data is a precious commodity to buy and sell targetted advertising or “improve usage experience” by private corporations or by governments for surveillance purposes. The more data transmitted online and stored on Cloud servers, the more chances it provides hackers to misuse for financial gain.
If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product. In the process of using free online products such as Facebook for social networking or Google’s Gmail/Youtube/Chrome, or Linkedin for Professional Networking, you are leaving a digital footprint of tonnes of data. Billions of dollars of revenue from ads are at stake.
Hackers could potentially connect the dots with scattered data for social engineering and have answers to your bank’s security questions. Your photos on social media could be misused to create fake videos.
Web browser privacy controls
Most popular web browsers like Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge / Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Safari provide in-browser privacy settings for users. These privacy settings are the first defense line while looking to safeguard your online privacy and personal information. You have options to delete cookies, maintain history, control activity logs, private browsing, and others. Privacy settings are customizable in every browser to your specific need for privacy.
Private browsing is an option to surf the internet while preventing the browser history from being collected. This Private Browsing mode or Incognito mode of browsing is helpful if your internet activity is being monitored by reviewing your browser history. However, you should know that a private browser doesn’t help if your device is hosting spyware that allows remote monitoring or somebody is looking over your shoulder.
Do Not Track is a setting to let your browser inform a visiting website that you would not like third parties to track your online activity. This setting means third party websites, ad companies, analytics agents, plugin providers that you encounter should not track your online activity. There is, however, no global convention on how to treat this setting. Lack of a robust regulatory mechanism has rendered this setting toothless though few companies like Twitter and Medium have publicly committed to respecting it.
Privacy focussed browsers
Your choice of a default browser can significantly impact your overall online privacy concerns and accidental sharing of personal data on the internet. Switching to one of the privacy-focused browsers is one way to prevent trackers from monitoring your digital moves online.
Among the popular options, Firefox is the most privacy-focused browser. Brave and Tor are also great options. Tor Browser is the most secure browser that helps you to anonymize your web traffic using the Tor network. If you have a compelling reason to use Chrome, you should know how to actively manage your Google Activity and limit what is collected or stored about you.
DuckDuckGo is an alternative to Google Search that doesn’t store users’ search logs or track their activity.
Browser extensions for online privacy
Using privacy focussed browser extensions is one more way to reduce your exposure to online snooping. It blocks ads and also helps to prevent most of the known methods of tracking your internet activity. Preventing hidden third party trackers from loading on your device is a way to disallow websites from collecting data about you. Another positive side effect is websites may load faster when most of the tracking software in the webpage is disabled.
There is a price to pay when a website might not load properly or nudges you to allow their trackers to load on a web page. Most extensions will enable you to toggle on or off and this allows you to control your browsing experience. You need to then consciously take a call whether you’d like to allow such activity and whether you’d like to consider alternate ways to do what you want to get done.
You should know that there is no perfectly safe browser – each of them have their advantages and weaknesses. Based on your browsing habits and what you tend to do online, you need to research what works best for you. Tweaking privacy settings in a popular browser and adding compatible extensions that work with the usual websites you visit should be an optimal browsing security practice. For higher security needs, tools like secure VPN come into play, and that’s a whole new topic to address.
I would love to know your privacy protection strategies – feel free to leave a comment.