Security and Privacy: A tale of four web browsers

Step up your security game by picking the right browser. Review: Chrome, Firefox, Brave and Tor.

Mukund Iyengar
Apr 22 · 6 min read
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

We are the product of a $200Bn advertisement industry hard at work.

While you use web-browsers to surf the web, ad-serving agencies are using your browsing logs to peek into your soul.

This article reviews four web-browsers to help you step up your online security. For full disclosure, the author is not affiliated with any of these browsers/companies in any way, shape or form.

Two simple definitions before we get started: (i) security: how the browser defends you from malicious code on a website, and (ii) privacy: preserving your identity across sites and sessions.

#4 Chrome

What is it? Owned by Google, Chrome is a browser based on the Chromium open-source project.

Pros: At its core, Chrome is a fast and safe browser. Countless design tweaks in the core architecture, as well as add ons like DNS-prefetching makes the overall browsing experience seem fast. Chrome is safe — standard sandboxing thwarts malicious sites from injecting harmful code on your device. As an ecosystem, Chrome has also accelerated initiatives like WebRTC streaming and QUIC protocol, which are poised to change a lot of how the web operates. Chrome’s desirability is tied to its popularity: thousands of extensions, fast and accurate rendering of sites, and better video-playback (SecureMeeting works best on Chrome).

Cons: Worst of the lot in terms of privacy — remember that Google is ad-serving agency on steroids. If you really saw how much they know about your life, you will probably throw up. Your “browsing history” on Chrome aside, Gmail reads your emails, knows where you go (maps), what you watch online (YouTube), logs all your search terms, and Google Assistant listens to all your conversations. And while you are at it, please also login to your Chrome using your Google account so you can help them accurately pinpoint everything you do across all your devices and never miss a thing.

Oh, you can go incognito. But that will not suppress your data from making it to Google’s data-centers or advertisers.

#3 Firefox

What is it? Emerged from the Mozilla project in 2004, Firefox is a browser built by a community of developers and contributors. Mozilla continues to operate as a non-profit, meaning Mozilla is not in the business of selling your user data.

Pros: Firefox compares well to Chrome in terms of speed. With ultra-fast response and opportunity to multi-task, Firefox can edge past Chrome in some instances (not all). Firefox also sandboxes sessions to enhance security. All in all, it’s gains are at-par with Chrome but with one important difference: Mozilla does not collect or share personal data to advertisers. However, this means little if you’re going to use Firefox and predominantly spend your time on sites like Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, etc.,

Cons: The three biggest drawbacks to Firefox are memory, compatibility and extensions. Firefox consumes more RAM than Chrome for most use-cases. No matter your computer’s build, it will appear slow if you have too many tabs open. On compatibility, some sites and services render poorly (select few won’t load at all). And lastly, the number of browser extensions are fairly limited compared to Chrome. Support for WebRTC or QUIC is limited and not consistent, meaning media playback is somewhat suboptimal compared to Chrome.

#2 Brave

What is it? A relatively new browser that is poised for Web 3.0. It is positioned as a safer alternative to most mainstream browsers, and appears future-forward with a lot of little quirks.

Pros: Brave ranks much higher than Chrome or Firefox when it comes to privacy. For a start, trackers and ads are blocked outright. Brave also resists fingerprinting, which lets advertisers track your activity across sites. On the security front, Brave is similar to Chrome. In fact, Brave is built on top of the Chromium engine which means that overall speed/reliability is somewhat similar (though they claim a 2x speedup). Brave also supports better media playback and SecureMeeting.

Cons: The biggest drawbacks for Brave are compatibility and extensions. Because it is relatively new, there are fewer browser extensions at the time of this writing. Some sites render poorly on Brave as well, albeit this is a shrinking number.

How Brave makes money: Brave is a for-profit company. If they block ads, how do they make money? Well, they make money by serving you ads. Wait.. what?

Brave lets users volunteer to watch an ad, and pays them tokens in return for this. Brave currently pays it’s users 70% of it’s ad-revenues. This idea is more in alignment with Web 3.0 philosophy: allowing people to earn ad-revenues for the ads they watch (instead of third party sites like Facebook or Google keeping 100% while forcing you to watch ads).

I still find ads weird. If anything, the quality/relevance of ads will be off target without the tracking. Time will tell. Draw your own conclusions.

#1 Tor

What is it? Tor takes security and anonymity to a brand new dimension. It is a product of an open-source, non-profit initiative called the Tor Project. Tor browser is not for the faint at heart.

Some background: Tor resists surveillance, fingerprinting and tracking. It is designed to not just dodge ads, but to bypass entire governments and censorship. Tor isn’t just a browser, it is an entire routing network comprised of other Tor users.

The core concept is onion routing: a decentralized system that allows you to connect through a network of relays rather than directly connecting to a site. The benefit here is that your IP address is hidden from the sites you visit by bouncing your connection from relay to relay at random; in essence, obfuscating the trail.

Pros: Unparalleled anonymity. Sites will never truly know the IP address of the user originating a session. Fingerprinting and surveillance do not stand a chance. Even sessions between relays, if hacked, will reveal very little. Tor users browse, chat, and share files with one another bypassing entire governments. If you are into that kind of a use-case (no judgement), take a deeper look at why you do what you do!

Cons: Usability wise, Tor is extremely slow. Your packets are getting bounced off of other Tor users who use ordinary machines that are time-shared for routing. You will constantly lose connection and restart sessions because a relay somewhere powered off their machine. Media playback is far from ideal as well.

Negative Connotations: Tor is notorious for a user base willing to perpetuate illegal activities. According to one estimate “…6–7% of daily users connect to Tor for illicit purposes”. Illicit refers to drugs, human trafficking, gambling, hacking and the dark-web. But it’s not always about breaking the law: Tor has also been used by whistleblowers and news leakers. Still, the average user trying to dodge a few ads will probably get more than she bargained for.

Conclusion

So what is the right browser for you? Here is our verdict:

  • If you want to step up your game with online privacy, download Brave and never look back. It is easy to use and will feel similar to most browsers you have tried in the past.
  • If you don’t care much for privacy, sell your soul to the ad-serving giants and go with Chrome. It’s fast, stable and reliable. Videos from YouTube render better, and you get thousands of kick-ass extensions.
  • Or choose Firefox. The gains are marginal, it’s a tad bit inefficient, but at least you support a non-profit.
  • If you have a lot to hide, Tor is the way to go. The experience will be slow and laggy, but hey, you will fly under the radar of sophisticated surveillance.

We firmly believe that Web 3.0 is the way of the future. We will no longer be “products” on the web. Sites like Google/Facebook should not profit by making us watch advertisements.

Lastly, this accidental online dictatorship by big-corps and governments needs to end.

SecureMeeting

SecureMeeting is on a mission is to advance human rights and freedom of speech. We do this by designing, developing and deploying planetary-scale, privacy-preserving communications architectures for all of mankind.

We are a US 501(c)(3) non-profit.

Send us a note, we’d love to hear from you: hello@securemeeting.org

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