So you've decided to use a VPN but is that really enough? Unfortunately, the truth is not really. Why? Because your browser most likely still collects data about you regardless. Incognito modes are highly misleading as well, generally speaking, all that they do is not leave footprints behind on your own computer. Additionally, the moment you sign into a personal account even using the most privacy-centered methods will not help you. Signing into a personal account while using a privacy-centric browser and VPN is like a spy handing over his personal passport at the airport.
Many browsers do not have your privacy in mind
Nothing is free, and that includes browsers. It costs time and money for companies to keep browsers up to date with the latest features to keep you using them. Companies exist to create revenue, while they may exist I've never seen a browser that you paid for directly. So how do these companies create revenue from "free" browser? If you guessed selling your data you would be correct. In fact even privacy centric browsers sell data, the difference is that instead of selling personal data they will sell meta-data that is much harder to identify you with.
So which browsers are good and which browsers are bad?
I won't mention the bad ones because it has become quite common knowledge which companies are the extreme offenders when it comes to disregarding your privacy. There is a ton of minor web-browsers that nobody has ever heard of that are privacy centric but here are my top 3: Brave Brave comes in at #1 for me for Desktop clients. It is very easy to use, fast and Tor can be integrated right into the browser(More on Tor later). Check out braves website here and their download link here. DuckDuckGo DuckDuckGo is better known for its privacy centric search engine, but they also have an amazing browser for Android and IOS. They are known to be very outspoken against privacy infringements. You can find them on Google Play on Android and the App store on IOS. Also, check out their search engine at duckduckgo.com. Firefox Firefox is another great privacy-centered browser. However, you will have to change the settings of the browser in order for it to be considered a real private browser. Check them out at mozilla.org. One final note is that with the exception of the DuckDuckGo browser these browsers use google as the default search engine which probably the least private search engine out there. I highly recommend downloading the DuckDuckGo extension for these browsers so that by default you use DuckDuckGo's search engine, which, by the way, is not full of ads and tends to provide much better search results.
Tor Browser, and the NSA/CSE
Now to address the elephant in the room. What is the Onion Network and who is really spying on us?
In 2013 Whistle-Blower Edward Snowden leaked perhaps the creepiest and most important information the world has seen in modern times. Our governments (The NSA in the United States and CSE in Canada) have been secretly spying on us for years. The amount of hidden tracking that has(and still is) going on shocked many of us but most of us shrugged our shoulders and went on about our days.
In order to counter terrorism these government agencies have set up spyware in almost every single piece of software and device imaginable. This revelation revealed in 2013 is largely what created a huge push for internet privacy. End-to-end encryption became hugely popular. But encryption methods are only as good as the key to the encryption. Software developed in the USA and Canada is often forced by law to put backdoors into their products for these government agencies to have access to hidden data. If you study cybersecurity one of the first things you would learn are that backdoors are huge security risks and can be exploited by hackers as well. This is why it is incredibly important to use a VPN that is legally based in a jurisdiction that does not force the developers to put backdoors into their software.
The Snowden leaks lead me to the tour de force of internet privacy. Perhaps the one thing that is most capable of avoiding government surveillance.
The Tor Browser (I've saved the most secure for last) is probably as private as private gets for surfing the internet. In my experience with the browser however it is not the most user-friendly. Such is the cost of privacy. The Tor Browser also provides access to the largest onion network. An onion network provides unbreakable encryption levels that are very difficult to comprehend but is best explained as peeling an onion -once you peel one layer of an onion you're faced with another layer-. Please note that Tor Browser is not perfect, has it share of vulnerabilities and because of it's common use by criminals it gets a lot more attention from authorities.
While I do not condone our government's insistence on mass surveillance in order to stop crimes, I'll also admit that using onion networks to circumnavigate government surveillance is a heck of a lot of work. It doesn't stop at just using the Tor browser and you are anonymous either, while the encryption methods may currently be unbreakable governments have found other ways of keeping track of what happens on Onion networks such as time analysis. Additionally, it is difficult to say how much data your operating system farms from you so to become truly anonymous on the internet you have to switch to a privacy operating system with TAILS probably being the most commonly known one.
The future of internet privacy
Unfortunately, the battle for internet privacy is an uphill battle. Those who are for mass surveillance are pushing bills to illegalize end-to-end encryption methods. It's in the best interest of big-tech companies to have less privacy so they can sell more of your data. Privacy-motivated companies are significantly less well-funded to fight back and the general public is indifferent towards the matter. Supercomputers with millions of times the processing power of a household PC still are not fast enough to decrypt current encryption methods. However, quantum computing is just starting to take off and it is quite likely quantum computers will indeed be able to break the unbreakable. With all that being said be very careful with what you say on the internet, especially on social media. One end product of data mining is your personal data being sold to potential employers during background checks! So if you wouldn't want to talk about it in a job interview consider not posting it on the internet! 2023 Update It's been about two years since I originally wrote this article. My writing style for one has certainly changed, but what else in the world of personal online privacy? DuckDuckGo I am not as much of a fan of DuckDuckGo as I was but I do not think they are terrible. They have gone from grade A to grade B in privacy. The concerns are: They are based in the United States a country known for forcing companies to comply with their laws. They have agreements with companies such as google that they like to keep quiet about. SwissCows SwissCows.com is doing a better job of staying private and to boot they are family-friendly! I'll allow the reader to guess where they are based! Tor Tor seems to be getting replaced slowly by I2P for ultra privacy. Quantum Computing There are rumours from the south that the US military is replacing their encryption standards for the first time in decades. That probably means a little bird whispered in their ear that their encryption is going to be crackable soon!