These internet browsers promise privacy. What does that actually mean?

Which privacy browser you choose depends on your needs. (Illustration: Jon Krause)
Which privacy browser you choose depends on your needs. (Illustration: Jon Krause)

Summary

Some browsers are designed to thwart online trackers and targeted advertising, among other things. Here’s what you need to know.

For consumers who worry about marketers and others tracking them online, there are internet browsers that make privacy a priority.

What exactly do they do—and do they deliver?

While their offerings vary, these browsers generally don’t sell your browsing history to third parties such as advertisers. They also limit the data collected about you by blocking the technology that third parties embed on the websites you visit for the purpose of monitoring your online behavior.

With these browsers, multiple privacy features are built in by default. That means users don’t have to adjust their settings or install privacy extensions—software that adds features to an existing application—to avoid targeted advertising and prevent third-party data collection, among other things.

It might sound like paranoia to some, says Alessandro Acquisti, professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, “but some people really don’t like the idea that they don’t have control over how their data is used."

Here are some answers to common questions about these browsers.

Which browsers are focused on privacy?

Consumers have a variety of privacy-focused browsers to choose from, including Brave, DuckDuckGo, Firefox, Ghostery and Tor. Internet users can download one or several of these browsers free and, if they choose, make one their default browser.

The privacy protections you get will depend on the browser. They can include blocking the installation of third-party trackers and cookies that log your activity across websites, as well as blocking targeted ads and more.

Tor, meanwhile, routes traffic in a way that disguises your unique IP address, which is another way third parties can link you to your web activity and identify your location. Other privacy browsers offer users a virtual-private-network option to accomplish the same thing, but often for an extra fee.

What are the benefits of a privacy browser?

Using a privacy browser curbs the amount of information being collected about you that could be used in unforeseen ways, says Acquisti. Data collected in a certain context for advertising, for example, could be used for something innocuous like serving you personalized ads, or it could be used in more potentially damaging ways, such as by law enforcement.

“Once data is collected, it is nearly impossible to control how it will be used," Acquisti says.

Privacy browsers also can help reduce the threat from malware by blocking unwanted ads, some of which can have malicious software embedded in them, Acquisti says. Some browsers will also auto-upgrade typed URLs or links to encrypted HTTPS connections, to make communication and data transfers between the browser and websites more secure.

Meanwhile, internet surfing can be speedier with privacy browsers, some users and security professionals say, partly because they aren’t loading ads on pages.

“If your computer is less busy making thousands of requests to the web, it’s going to go a lot faster," says Jean-Paul Schmetz, chief executive of Ghostery and a board observer at Brave.

What are the downsides?

While privacy-oriented browsers are generally fast, effective and user-friendly, there can be instances when websites don’t load or work properly. This could be because the browser has blocked trackers and cookies too aggressively or due to some other programming bug.

You also will lose the benefits of internet personalization. That means ads you see, if any, may not be relevant or as relevant to your needs and interests, and you may miss being offered content based on other sites you’ve visited.

Users should be aware that not all privacy browsers offer the same level of default protection, and there can be gaps in their web-tracking defenses. Some charge premiums for certain security features such as access to a virtual private network.

While Tor hides your IP address by default, some users and Tor itself have said the browser can be slower than other privacy browsers because of the way it routes traffic—over a network managed by volunteers.

“While using a browser that prioritizes privacy is a positive step in reducing your online footprint, it’s essential to recognize that it isn’t sufficient for achieving maximum privacy. Employing a combination of tools, techniques, and being mindful of online habits is necessary to enhance privacy protection," says Anna Larkina, privacy expert at Kaspersky, a cybersecurity and antivirus provider.

What if I like my current browser and don’t want to switch?

If you like your current browser but worry about privacy, you may be able to achieve similar protection by installing and properly configuring extensions designed for this purpose, says Emory Roane, policy counsel at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which advocates on privacy-related issues.

Roane offers the example of uBlock Origin for Chrome and other browsers, which helps protect against ads and tracking. Ghostery, meanwhile, offers an extension for several browsers for blocking ads, stopping trackers and speeding up websites.

Standard browsers also offer ways to leave no trace of your search and browsing history—this is sometimes called incognito mode—but it doesn’t make you completely anonymous on the internet; its primary function is to not save browsing history and to delete cookies on the specific device where it’s activated, Larkina says.

How do privacy browsers make money?

Several providers, including DuckDuckGo, Ghostery and Brave, sell private ads. However, these ads aren’t targeted based on personal data and web history, and advertisers don’t receive identifying information about users who click on them, according to providers.

Some providers get funding from contributors. Ghostery, for example, has a community of longtime super-users who provide financial support, according to a spokesperson. Tor, which is maintained by the nonprofit Tor Project, relies on donations and grants, a spokesperson says.

Some privacy-browser providers sell premium subscriptions to interested users. For example, Mozilla—the maker of Firefox—offers a subscription to its virtual private network, or VPN. It also offers a service that scans data-broker sites that may be selling your personal info and automatically removes personal information from them.

Brave, meanwhile, offers paid access to services such as a VPN, a privacy-preserving videoconferencing tool, AI applications and more. DuckDuckGo has a three-prong subscription service with a VPN, a personal-information removal service and an identity-theft restoration service.

Which privacy browser should I choose?

Which browser you choose depends on your needs. As a starting point, think about how strong a privacy need you have. Tor, for example, tends to excel at disguising IP addresses, which could be advantageous for journalists, activists, researchers and others dealing with sensitive matters who might have an added need for privacy, Roane says. Higher levels of privacy also could be important for people searching for reproductive-health services, depending on what state they are in, says Kurt Baumgartner, a Kaspersky researcher.

Someone who simply wants to avoid ad tracking, however, might find Tor slightly slower for everyday browsing purposes, security professionals say.

There’s nothing saying that you can’t use more than one browser, for different purposes, especially since they are free, says Daly Barnett, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital privacy, free speech and innovation. A writer, for example, might want to use one privacy browser for more mainstream use, and Tor when communicating with whistleblowers and dissidents.

“Choosing a different browser based on the level of privacy one needs for a specific activity will do wonders for the overall risk their digital footprint carries," Barnett says.

Cheryl Winokur Munk is a writer in West Orange, N.J. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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