Private Browsers Aren't All Equally Private


Footprint on sand dune at Lençóis Maranhenses in Barreirinhas, Brazil. Footprint on sand dune at Lençóis Maranhenses in Barreirinhas, Brazil.
Concerned about your digital footprint? Private search engines help to make it smaller. Ridalv/Getty Images

If you're like most people, you probably don't think very much about online privacy. You have nothing to hide, right, so why would you bother covering up your tracks online?

The fact is that if you are using a regular browser like Chrome or Safari, and if you conduct most of your searches through a non-private search engine like Google or Bing, then third-party websites and other unknown entities can track your every move.

According to a Princeton University study of the top 1 million websites, the web is riddled with third-party trackers. News websites are some of the worst offenders, with an average of 40 trackers running in the background. The most common trackers are owned by Google and its subsidiaries, plus Facebook and Twitter, but lots are also operated by shady entities in places like Russia and Germany.

Even if you go into Chrome's settings and enable the "do not track" feature, those are only voluntary browser requests. Turns out that the biggest tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter don't comply with "do not track" requests.

Taken all together, a ubiquitous tech company like Google can analyze your entire online footprint to paint a remarkably accurate picture of you — both the public and private you. Google and Facebook use that data to sell ads, though hackers might use it for perhaps more sinister purposes.

OK, so now you might be thinking, "it's time to make my internet activities more private." Let's look at the different ways you can go about it.

1. Use Incognito Mode on Your Browser

The first (and easiest) method would be to go to the browser you normally use and set it to "incognito" status. For instance, if you use Chrome, you click on the three dots at the top right and select New Incognito Window. The little icon of the hat and the glasses will appear plus a dark screen (to remove simple click on the icon and select Exit Incognito.) Other browsers have similar features or names.

If you use incognito mode on your browser, it means that information like browsing history or downloaded cookies are not automatically stored on your device. But your activity might still be visible to the organization providing the internet connection, like a college or corporation. Also, the websites that you visit might still have access to your information. And those settings won't do a thing to stop third-party entities from leaving cookies in your browser or seeing your unique IP address. In other words, you can still be tracked "in the dark."

2. Use a Private Search Engine

Level two privacy would be to use a private search engine rather than the ubiquitous Google. These include DuckDuckGo, Ecosia and Startpage. They all promise to evade the myriad third-party trackers that are spying on you behind the scenes.

"There's a lack of awareness of just how much data are being collected," says Daniel Davis, communications manager for DuckDuckGo. "People kind of expect that when you use a search engine like Google that your search terms are going to be recorded somewhere and they're going to be tracked. What people don't realize is the extent of the other data that's linked to those search queries and the third parties that it's shared with."

DuckDuckGo does not block ads from showing up in the browser. But instead of collecting lots of data like Google to serve up "behavioral advertising," DuckDuckGo uses "contextual advertising." That means that it only serves up ads with keywords that are directly related to your search terms.

It's true that search terms include a lot of private information: questions about personal health issues, financial information like your bank name or mortgage lender, loads of geographic data, and even your romantic preferences.

But there's a lot of other data that can be tied to those search queries. If you use Gmail, then Google can collect all sorts of information about your online purchases and upcoming travel plans and connect them with your search terms. And if you also use the Google Chrome browser, think of the dizzying amounts of data that can be gleaned from your browser history. Not to mention if you also use Google Maps and other Google products.

These private search engines work in ways similar to each other. For instance, you can install the DuckDuckGo browser extension on any major browser simply by going to the DuckDuckGo website. On their homepage will be a large icon inviting you to "Add DuckDuckGo" to Firefox or Chrome or whatever browser you happened to be on. (DuckDuckGo also has mobile browsers for Android and iOS).

Installing the extension makes DuckDuckGo your default search engine. So, when you type search terms into the address bar, no data are collected about your search and nothing is shared with the sites you click on in the DuckDuckGo search results. DuckDuckGo uses an algorithm that includes Yahoo and Bing results as well as 400 other sources to compile its search results. (Startpage uses Google for its search results but submits the queries anonymously.)

The DuckDuckGo browser extension automatically defaults to the encrypted version of any website. If you've noticed, most websites use the prefix "https" instead of "http" at the beginning of their web address. That extra "s" means that your connection to the website is encrypted, so that no other party can eavesdrop on data sent between your computer and the website. You'll also see a small padlock icon next to web addresses that are encrypted.

Oddly, even websites that have an "https" version don't always make that encrypted connection available as default. The DuckDuckGo browser extension enforces the encrypted version every time.

The DuckDuckGo also features a "privacy grade." For every website you visit, DuckDuckGo assigns it a grade from A+ to F based on three criteria: whether there's an encrypted connection, how many third-party trackers are found on the site, and the strength and transparency of the site's privacy policy.

Cookies have gotten a bad rap, but Davis notes that not all cookies are bad. For example, you want your social networks and email service to leave cookies on your browser, so you don't have to log in from scratch every time. DuckDuckGo and other privacy browsers generally leave those first-party cookies alone, though they will block third party trackers as a default.

However, you can change your preferences to block all cookies and scrub your browser cache after each session.

3. Use an Anonymous Browser

OK, maybe you want absolutely no trace of your internet activities to be tracked. Then you might want to look at a browser like Tor. As Tor's website puts it, "Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers worldwide: it prevents somebody watching your internet connection from learning what sites you visit and it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location. Tor works with many of your existing applications, including web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote login, and other applications based on the TCP protocol." Tor was used for Edward Snowden's whistleblowing activities and for communication during the Arab Spring events.

Rather than adding an extension to an existing browser, you download the Tor browser as a replacement. It warns that it will block flash, RealPlayer and other add-ins. It's also rigorous about which background scripts can run and wipes off everything at the end of each internet session, including cookies left by other sites and any browser history on the app.

Wired magazine noted that this browser runs slower than others due to the extra encryption, "but in terms of staying invisible on the web, it's the best there is. It can even help you get online in countries where the internet is blocked or censored."

Other anonymous browsers include Epic, which comes with access to a free VPN and Brave. In all cases, you download a browser rather than using an existing one like Chrome, Firefox or Safari.