In a world overrun with snoops of all types, everyone needs a secure and private browser. Here are the ones to consider… and the ones to avoid.
The internet has come a long way since its humble, text-only beginnings. One of the milestones was the creation of the first web browser and web server by Tim Berners-Lee. These led to a huge increase in the use of the internet. Unfortunately, all these users also attracted people who want access to all that personal information, and will do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. As the F-Secure website points out:
Attackers typically target the web browser to either hijack or snoop on the web traffic from it, or exploit it to access the device itself, and the files saved on it.
A secure browser will, to the extent possible, prevent attackers from hijacking it, snooping on traffic from it, or exploiting it to get access to the device running the browser. There are many ways that browser security can be attacked, and the details are too extensive to talk about here. For a good (slightly dated) overview of the situation, you can visit the Securing Your Web Browser page on the US government's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) website.
Securing your browser is vitally important, but it is only half of the battle. Your browser must also protect your privacy. A secure browser is of little use if you have to surrender your privacy to use it. A good example of a browser that has strong security but weak privacy is Google Chrome.
Google makes sure that their browser is secure, and is constantly upgrading its defenses. However, Google makes much of its money from selling targeted ads. Between the company's reputation for, um, infringing on people's privacy online, and the fact that the browser is not open source, it would be silly to think that your privacy is protected when you use Chrome.
What this means for us is that while security is our number one priority (this site isn't called SecurityTech for nothing!), we will not recommend any secure browsers that don't also protect your privacy. So let's get right into it.
The most secure browsers that also protect your privacy
How did we choose the browsers to feature here? We considered several factors, including:
- Does the browser resist being hijacked, keep your data safe from snoops, and resist online exploits? (Is it secure?)
- What personal information does the browser collect? Who does it share that information with? (Is it private?)
- Does it have a development team that publishes upgrades and bug fixes? (Is it well supported?)
- Can it display pages without glitches or bugs? Does it support current internet standards like HTML5? (Does it work?)
- Bonus points for browsers that have a range of desktop and mobile clients (Can I use it on all my devices?)
The ultimate goal of this article is to identify a variety of secure, private web browsers for you. From there, it is on you to choose the browser or browsers that work best for your circumstances.
Based on research and testing, these are the most secure and private browsers:
1. Firefox Browser
Firefox is our #1 recommendation when the subject is the best secure and private browser. It ticks all the boxes for the factors that make a great secure web browser.
Is Firefox secure?
- Open source code that has been audited for security.
- A Security Bug Bounty program that rewards outside researchers for finding bugs in Firefox.
- Tracker protection that blocks malicious websites from discovering where you go while online. This includes the relatively new, advanced tracking technique called redirect tracking, or bounce tracking.
- DNS over HTTPS (also known as DoH). Normally, DNS queries from a web browser go over an unencrypted connection to a DNS server controlled by your ISP. This lets your ISP see where you go on the internet. This is a privacy disaster when you consider that ISPs in countries like the US can do anything they want with this data, including sell it on the open market. DoH encrypts your DNS queries and sends them to a privacy-protecting DNS service. DoH plugs one of the major security leaks that most browsers are still subject to.
Is Firefox private?
By default, Firefox offers decent privacy protection. Mozilla, the publisher of Firefox collects as little data about you and your activities as possible. As a non-profit organization they don't have the pressure to collect and sell your data that a for-profit company like Google would.
And that's not all. With a little work, you can harden Firefox to turn its privacy rating from decent to excellent. Mozilla, the publisher of Firefox, offers an extensive guide to hardening Firefox on their Protect your privacy page.
Is Firefox well supported?
Firefox is definitely well supported. As one of the most popular web browsers in the world, it is backed by a large, active development team that publishes new versions constantly. To give you some idea, the day when we wrote this article at the end of October, 2020, the latest Firefox Desktop version was 82.0.2. If you go to this page, you can see what version they are currently on. You might be surprised how many new versions have hit the net since then.
Does Firefox work?
Given the large team of developers constantly rolling out updates, it should come as no surprise that Firefox supports all the latest internet standards and works well. You should be aware that some Firefox privacy and security options could break websites that use technologies which are security risks. But this is a tradeoff that you will run into with any secure browser, not a Firefox-specific problem.
Can you use Firefox on all your devices?
The odds are excellent that you will be able to use Firefox anywhere you want to use a web browser. Mozilla offers desktop support for Windows, MacOS, and Linux computers.
Mobile support is available for iOS and Android devices. These are new versions of Firefox with powerful security and privacy features like built-in tracker blocking, malicious ad blocking, and a private browsing mode.
There are also specialized versions like Firefox Browser for Enterprise, Firefox Reality (a version optimized for virtual reality), and Firefox for Fire TV.
For our money, Firefox is the secure browser to beat. But keep reading to learn about some worthy challengers.
2. Tor browser
The Tor browser is a specialized, open-source version of Firefox. It is designed to connect to the internet through the Tor anonymity network, a worldwide network of servers designed to make it difficult to associate specific activities on the internet with specific users.
Is the Tor browser secure? Is it private?
Tor is very secure. The Tor browser comes configured in a standard manner that makes it resistant to browser fingerprinting. It also prevents scripts from running, and deletes cookies, your browsing history, and any other data whenever you close the browser.
Note that you can compromise the security of the Tor browser by installing additional add-ons or plugins.
The Tor browser comes out of the box configured for strong privacy protection. Exactly how strong that privacy protection is in normal use depends in part on whether the Tor network is as secure and private as it is commonly believed to be.
As with the security of the browser, you can compromise the privacy of the Tor browser by installing additional add-ons or plugins.
Does the Tor browser work? Is it well supported?
The Tor browser does work well. However, some of its security features, such as blocking all scripts, mean that it will not work with some websites that rely on features Tor blocks.
The Tor browser is back by the Tor Project, a well-funded, US non-profit organization. The team consists of around 90 technical people and a board of directors currently led by internationally-known security expert Bruce Schneier.
A related issue is the Tor anonymity network itself. It is indisputably slow. But there are also concerns arising from US government funding of Tor, reports of malicious exit nodes, and even rumors that the network itself has been compromised.
Can you use the Tor browser on all your devices?
The Tor browser is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, and Android. You can download the Android app from the Google Play store, F-Droid, or in .apk form directly from the Tor Project website.
3. Brave browser
Based on the open source Chromium browser, the Brave browser gives you security and privacy without requiring any tweaks or adjustments. It has great built-in features like Brave Shields, systems for blocking ads, trackers, malicious websites, and third-party cookies. And let's not forget automatically upgrading security to HTTPS wherever possible and attempting to prevent browser fingerprinting.
Is the Brave browser secure? Is it private?
Brave comes pre-configured to provide good security. And it supports a wide range of Chrome security-focused add-ons.
Brave privacy is a little less clear. In 2019, Brave started displaying “privacy-respecting” ads in place of the original ads that the browser blocks. Part of the revenue from those ads can be paid out to the websites you visit the most, assuming that the website owner participates in the program.
This system makes us a little uncomfortable, since you have to trust that the ads displayed by Brave really do respect your privacy. You also have to trust that the information Brave gathers about your online activities to manage the program won't be used in ways you don't like. Fortunately, you can opt out of the whole program, thereby reducing the potential privacy problems.
Another way to boost your privacy when using Brave is to select the Private Window with Tor option. This puts you into a separate browser window where everyting you do in that window is automatically erased once you close the window. Adding to the privacy of this option is access to the internet through the Tor anonymity network, for additional protection.
Does the Brave browser work? Is it well supported?
In general, Brave works well. Like other browsers in this list, it can have problems when visiting websites that use scripts or display ads that Brave automatically blocks. There are full development and support teams in place, working to make sure that Brave bugs get fixed and the browser keeps up with changes to internet protocols and other issues.
Can you use Brave on all your devices?
The Brave browser runs on the top mobile and desktop platforms. Specifically, Brave is available for Windows, mac OS, Linux, iOS, and Android.
4. Ungoogled Chromium browser
You may have noticed that many secure web browsers are built from the open source Chromium browser. Chromium is a fast, powerful, very secure browser, that forms the basis for Google Chrome. It is under constant development by Google, yet available for anyone to use in their own projects, because it is open source.
The big concern for Chromium is that there is a lot of code in Chromium that communicates with Google, a company that is not known for respecting the privacy of their users. ungoogled-chromium (yes, all lower-case characters is correct) is designed to give you all the benefits of Chromium (which is very similar to Chrome) without any of the ties to Google web services. The developers also included several options you can manually activate to increase the privacy of the browser among other things.
Is ungoogled-chromium secure? Is it private?
Chromium is considered to be very secure, and so is ungoogled-chromium. It benefits greatly from Google's constant work on the security of the base Chromium browser, since ungoogled-chromium receives regular Chromium security updates.
The main goal of ungoogled-chromium is to take advantage of all the security and other benefits that Chromium offers, while eliminating the privacy issues caused by reliance on Google services and still giving you access to the add-ons in the Google Chrome store. Eliminating all those connections makes ungoogled-chromium both secure and private.
Does ungoogled-chromium work? Is it well supported?
ungoogled-chromium works well. However, it is important to realize that you could have some problems if you do want to interact with specific Google services that need code that's been removed from this browser.
There's a team of 50+ volunteer(?) contributors to the ungoogled-chromium project. We haven't seen any complaints about the support the project receives, but have to assume that support will be better from a project like Firefox or Brave, where the projects have sources of income to pay the team.
If you want to try ungoogled-chromium, your best bet will be to build it from the source files yourself. There are binaries available but the disclaimer included makes us leery to use these binaries where privacy or security are important:
IMPORTANT: These binaries are provided by anyone who are willing to build and submit them. Because these binaries are not necessarily reproducible, authenticity cannot be guaranteed. For your consideration, each download page lists the GitHub user that submitted those binaries.
Can you use ungoogled-chromium on all your devices?
Another drawback for ungoogled-chromium is that they do not provide Android or iOS support. They do, however, support Windows, mac OS, and Linux.
5. Iridium browser
Here again we have a secure browser based on the open source Chromium browser.
Is Iridium secure and private?
Iridium includes modifications to force strict security and more privacy than the basic Chromium browser (or Google Chrome for that matter), while still giving you access to Chrome extensions. According to the Iridium website,
All modifications enhance the privacy of the user and make sure that the latest and best secure technologies are used. Automatic transmission of partial queries, keywords and metrics to central services is prevented and only occurs with the approval of the user.
Does Iridium work? Is it well supported?
Iridium does indeed work. However, not all Chrome add-ins work with Iridium due to the browser’s privacy and security settings or because they cannot verify Iridium.
Iridium is supported by the team at NETitwork GmbH. They issue regular updates as well as new versions of the browser to ensure that it is alway compatible with the latest internet protocols.
Can you use Iridium on all your devices?
Unfortunately, you cannot use Iridium on all your devices. While it supports Windows, mac OS, and several varieties of Linux, it does not support Android, iOS, or any other mobile operating system.
The company had plans to release mobile versions of the browser in the second half of 2020, but those were undoubtedly delayed or abandoned (like so much else) thanks to COVID lockdowns and illnesses.
Secure browsers that don't make the grade
There are several browsers out there that offer good security, but didn't make our list. Here's a quick rundown on some of them, and why we don't consider it a good choice.
- Opera – The Opera browser once had a good reputation for security and privacy. Unfortunately, once it was sold to a Chinese consortium in 2016, things started going downhill. The company now gathers lots of data that they use for marketing and advertising campaigns, and can store it for up to three years. Whether or not Opera still offers good security, we don't think it offers good privacy.
- Google Chrome – The most popular web browser in the world is indeed secure. Most secure browsers use Chromium (the open source base upon which Chrome is built) due to its excellent security and frequent updates. The problem, as we mentioned earlier, is on the privacy side of the equation. While Chrome will protect your privacy from outsiders, it is a pretty safe bet that anything you do with Chrome ends up in a Google database somewhere.
- Microsoft Internet Explorer / Edge – Microsoft is transitioning their user base from the old Internet Explorer to their new Edge browser. Internet Explorer isn't very secure. Presumably Edge is much better, but whichever flavor of Microsoft browser you use, the problem is that it is a Microsoft browser. Like Google, Microsoft is known to do everything they can to gather personal information about the users of their products. Avoid these, please.
- Waterfox – This is a modified version of Firefox. That's a good base upon which to build a secure and private browser. Unfortunately, in February 2020, Waterfox was purchased by System1, a PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising agency. This puts Waterfox in the same kind of situation as Chrome or Edge, belonging to a company that tries to collect as much information on its users as possible. Why risk your privacy in a situation like this when there are many options out there without this kind of problem.
Why you might want to use more than one browser at a time
After going to all the effort to choose the secure and private browser that's best for your situation, you might wonder why in the world you would use anything else. But think for a minute about how you actually use a web browser.
Do you tend to leave the browser open on your desktop with 2, 5, 10, or more tabs open at the same time? Do you stay logged into more than one site at a time.
If so, you could be introducing security risks where the site you're logged into on this tab can track what you are doing in that tab. While oour recommended browsers should be able to protect you, logging into your bank account while you have Facebook or some dark web movie site open at the same time is just inviting trouble.
The solution? Install multiple browsers from our recommendations, and use different browsers for different tasks. Maybe you only use ungoogled-chromium to log into your bank accounts, and Firefox for everything else. Now these are just examples, not specific recommendations. But you get the idea.
Using different browsers for different tasks can be a pain in the neck, but if your goal is the maximum possible security, it could be a good way to go.
You can take this idea one step further. For the maximum in security and privacy, you can run a browser in a Linux virtual machine using a program like VirtualBox. The browser running in the virtual machine would be totally isolated from the rest of your computer, with anything outside the virtual machine invisible to, and protected from, whatever happens in the virtual machine.
A VPN will increase your privacy and security when browsing online
One of the most confusing things about web browsers these days are their private or incognito modes. From their names, you might think that these modes would keep others from seeing your IP address. Your IP address can be used to identify your device on the internet and determine your location so it makes sense that a private mode would keep that, well, private.
Unfortunately, private and incognito modes don't do that. They still share your IP address with every website you visit. All they do is delete data about your “private” session from your browser when you close the window. As Firefox explains:
Firefox clears your search and browsing history when you quit the app or close all Private Browsing tabs and windows. While this doesn’t make you anonymous to websites or your internet service provider, it makes it easier to keep what you do online private from anyone else who uses this computer.
If you want to keep your wife from knowing that you are checking out your ex's Facebook page, a private session could be just what you need. But if you want to prevent your ISP and anyone else who cares to spy on your connection from identifying you using your IP address, private / incognito modes are useless.
For real online privacy (and excellent security), you need to use a VPN in conjunction with your web browser. The VPN will prevent anyone else from seeing your real IP address, while adding another layer of security on top of that provided by your web browser.
Here at SecurityTech we've tested more VPNs than we care to count, and picked out the ones that provide excellent security, along with other important VPN characteristics like privacy and speed. You can count on us to keep testing, retesting and updating our recommendations, but as of November 2020, here are out top two recommended VPNs:
- NordVPN – Secure, private, and faster than any VPN we've ever seen, it is hard to go wrong with these guys.
- Surfshark – Coming out of nowhere to the #2 spot in our list in just a couple of years, Surfshark is a worthy challenger.
Conclusion on secure and private browsers
It is unfortunate that the most popular web browser in the world (Google Chrome) is secure but doesn't protect your privacy. If you value both security and privacy, you need to look elsewhere.
In this article, we showed you our picks for the best secure browsers that also protect your privacy properly. While they are similar in many ways, each has unique characteristics that could make one of them more suitable for you than the other.
Here's what we recommend you do:
- Read through this article, and select the secure web browser that looks most interesting to you.
- Download it and give it a thorough trial. All the browsers in the list are free, so all it will cost you is a little bit of time to install and a little bit of attention to how comfortable you are using it. Be sure to try it for long enough to use it in all your normal web browsing activities.
- If all is good, you may have found your new web browser. If you aren't sure, or are simply curious, download another from the list and put it to work.
- Rinse and repeat until you settle on the one (or two, or three) browsers you will use from now on.
Good luck and have fun!