Most people know our technology is spying on us. After all, how many times have you searched for something online, only to suddenly find ads popping up on your screen offering that exact same item or service? That might not seem too ominous; maybe you even appreciate the ads. But privacy experts warn that tech companies — namely Google, Microsoft and Apple — are quietly compiling an alarming amount of sensitive data about us, including information about our finances, medical history, political leanings, religion and more.
All of this data may be leaked, hacked, shared with government intelligence agencies, subpoenaed and used to influence our opinions, among other concerns. That's probably why a 2019 Pew Research Center survey showed that 81 percent of people in the U.S. say the potential risks from data collection outweigh the benefits. In addition, more than 60 percent of respondents feel it's not possible to go through daily life without the government or companies collecting data about them. Luckily, there are measures we can take to protect our personal info. And one of the easiest ways is to start using a web browser or search engine dedicated to privacy.
A web browser is a piece of software that lets you access the internet — to visit or log in to websites, view multimedia, etc. Chrome was the most popular web browser in 2021, with 64 percent of the global market share, followed by Safari (19 percent), Firefox (3.3 percent) and Edge (3.2 percent). All browsers, in turn, use a search engine like Google, Bing or Yahoo! to carry out their web searches.
When you get a new laptop, tablet or phone, you don't normally have to select a web browser, as many devices come with one preinstalled. Apple products are loaded with Safari, for example, while most Android devices come with Chrome. Yet while these two ubiquitous browsers do offer some privacy features, including the ability to search under a privacy mode (like Chrome's Incognito), those features don't do much, says Robert Beens, co-founder and CEO of Startpage, a private search engine offering free, anonymous browsing. (Full disclosure: HowStuffWorks’ parent company System1 is an investor in Startpage.)
Searching under "incognito" or "privacy" mode, for example, mainly hides your web searches from other people who might use your device. The browser itself still sees and records all of the identifying details of your searches. "Privacy modes are great for marketing," says Beens, "but they don't do much for our privacy. That's the reality."
Why Private Browsers and Search Engines Are Better
One option, then, is to use a new browser dedicated to privacy. There are many out there, and switching to another one takes less than a minute. Mozilla's Firefox doesn't remember your history or logins, and it offers ad-blockers, an invisible shield that blocks certain trackers and a browser extension that makes it more difficult for Facebook to track your online activity. A few other well-regarded private browsers are Vivaldi, Tor, Brave, DuckDuckGo and Waterfox (Full disclosure: The Waterfox browser is owned by HowStuffWorks' parent company, System1).
Beens says his company, Startpage, offers the most secure internet experience available, as it delivers Google search results in privacy via a unique relationship with Google. Here's how it works: If you conduct a web search on Startpage, it strips off all of your identifying information, then passes on an anonymous query to Google. Google performs the search, then returns its results to Startpage and you. During the process, Startpage doesn't save or sell your search history or leave cookies. It also prevents third parties from targeting you.
In addition to protecting your privacy, private search engines like Startpage ensure you receive unbiased search results, says Beens, a concept critical to understand. Today, the more a search engine knows about you, the more it will try to skew all search results toward your preferences. Beens says if he enters "Egypt" into Google's search bar, for example, he might receive more information on diving sites in the Red Sea than someone else, because Google knows he's interested in diving. But someone who's interested in politics might receive more news links on political issues surrounding Egypt.
"Search results are not always true search results," he says, "because search engines often put you in a bubble. To break out of that bubble, you have to use a search engine that gives you absolutely unbiased search results.
Of course, there are limits to what any private browser or private search engine can do. None of them can protect you on any websites where you log in, for example, because once you do that, you've confirmed your personal information. Some private browsers may be slower, due to their enhanced privacy features. And private search engines performing their own searches — unlike Startpage's use of Google and its goliath search power — may not be as good at finding information for very niched searches. In the end, says Beens, it comes down to awareness.
For internet privacy today is not just about protecting our passwords and avoiding third-party ads; it's becoming aware about being manipulated. Technical companies try to keep you on their websites and in their ecosystems as long as they can, Beens says, and they achieve this in part by putting you in your own echo chamber, where you see and hear more and more of the same. This can reinforce your thoughts and impressions, and lead to the polarization among people that we're seeing in the U.S. and around the globe.
"Internet privacy is way more important than closing your curtains at night," he says.