Avoid The Hack: 4 Best Privacy Browsers Picks for iOS
This post was originally published on 2 APR 2021; this is an update to the last revision 13 FEB 2022.
Unfortunately, you can't just outright delete Safari on a regular iPhone.
But you can absolutely minimize your use of it by downloading, installing, and using a browser focused on your privacy!
(Another option is configuring Safari for privacy on iOS.)
The privacy browsers you'll find listed in this post are all available in the App Store.
It's also worth noting that they're in no particular order here. Each browser has its unique strengths. You should keep in mind your individual wants and needs from an iOS browser - above all else you should look to stay true to your threat model.
NOTE: Apple's iOS environment forces all browsers on iOS to use its WebKit rendering engine. This is the same engine that powers Safari.
Firefox has been covered in a few other posts on avoidthehack:
- Firefox Focus has been compared with the Brave Browser
- Users are free to compare Firefox Focus with other privacy-oriented browsers by visiting the Privacy Browser Comparison Tool.
- Firefox Focus has been reviewed
- Firefox Focus and standard Firefox have been directly compared
As you may already know, Firefox Focus is a cousin of the regular Firefox. They share a lot of similarities, including the same developer (Mozilla) and rendering engines (Gecko). Their logos are even similar!
However, Focus is all about simplicity and user privacy from first launch; there is not a lot of setting tweaking required to reap the benefits of Firefox Focus. Additionally, it's only available on mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android.
Focus' emphasis on minimalism is a hard characteristic to miss. Usage of the browser quickly reveals it has no frills; it doesn't even have tab management!
It also doesn't save any information between browsing sessions, which means Focus is always in a "private browsing" mode, similar to that of Safari. There's no bookmarking or saving login information.
For some people, this level of minimalism in a mobile browser might be a deal breaker.
But let it be heard that Focus has killer (read: excellent) tracker blocking features. Focus can block trackers from ads, social media, and analytics tools found on many sites. Focus can also block content and web font downloads.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Focus is its ability to integrate with Safari. Integrating Focus with Safari gives you its tracker blocking abilities while browsing the net with Safari. Unfortunately, the tracker blocking features aren't as robust as they otherwise would be while actually using Focus or another privacy browser, but when enabled in Safari, it makes a noticeable difference in blocking unwanted ads and trackers.
Brave is another privacy-oriented browser that has been the topic of a few posts here on avoidthehack.
Compared to the likes of Firefox and its long history, Brave is more of a newcomer to the overall browser scene. It started in 2016 as a project maintained by former Mozilla developer Brendan Eich and has since grown into both a company and a bigger ecosystem, with the browser at the center of it all.
Brave is an open source and fully featured privacy browser designed to replace Safari (or Google Chrome) as much as possible. In short, it can do just about everything Safari can - featuring tabbed browsing, "private browsing," bookmarking, cookie saving/management, and forcing secure HTTPS connections to websites.
The most notable feature about Brave on iOS is its ad and tracker blocking capabilities. Brave's native adblocking solutions are referred to as "shields." Brave's shields are enabled by default, providing protection from ads and trackers straight out-the-box.
For those looking for additional protection, Brave can be configured to block all website scripts and provide fingerprinting protection.
Brave also has an exceptionally unique feature: its reward system, run on the Basic Attention Token (BAT).
Brave has gotten into hot water over its reward and ads system. Utilize discretion if you decide to opt-in.
This rewards system is opt-in, meaning that you can choose to participate or not. Therefore, its usage isn't compulsory at all, but the fact that the developers seem to push users to use it and its BAT cryptocurrency may be a turn off to some users.
With that said, Brave is a fully featured browser that provides good privacy options and fingerprinting protection for your iOS device. It's biggest plus is that its highly user friendly and has decent privacy from right out-the-box.
Users are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the privacy issues/controversies that have surrounded Brave in the course of making an informed decision.
SnowHaze is yet another unique browser, developed by the primarily Swiss-based team over at Illotros GmbH. Snowflake is privacy-oriented browser and a VPN wrapped into one app.
While the privacy browser and all of its features are free, the VPN is part of SnowHaze's premium features; in other words, payment is required to access the VPN. For what it's worth, the VPN claims a "no-logs" policy.
Fortunately, the browser doesn't lack features. In fact, SnowHaze is a fully-featured browser, boasting a ton of different privacy and security settings for true customization to users' needs.
SnowHaze forces HTTPS connections, blocks ads/trackers, blocks invasive analytic trackers. SnowHaze can block popovers - a modern evolution of the classic "popup".
SnowHaze was originally a closed-source project, but has since been released as open source.
The Onion browser is one of a couple iOS browsers that connect to Tor.
What is Tor? Simply put, Tor is short for "The Onion Router." Tor provides anonymity from many websites or web apps you may visit and from third-parties potentially snooping on your internet traffic.
The Onion browser does this by directing traffic through volunteer-led "relays." Due to the "relays," a connection through Tor is noticeably slower.
The Onion browser is a project created and led by Mike Tigas, who is a developer over at ProPublica.
The browser itself has been available on the App Store since about 2012 and is open source, it's source code publically available on GitHub. Originally, it was a paid app but as of writing is free; support funding is generated via donors and Patreon backers.
It helps to know that the Onion browser is officially backed by the Tor Project.
This browser also has a mostly stable NoScript mode, which is also found in a couple of other browsers on this list. It even features user agent spoofing.
(User agent spoofing is where you tell a website what browser and device you're on so that it can serve up the best version of the site for you. The Onion browser spoofs this for you so things appear as they would in a more mainstream browser.)
Now, it must be said that the Onion browser lacks in features you may be used to enjoying in other browsers. The number one complaint is that it doesn't even have tab management.
However, what this browser lacks in features it makes up for in privacy. With the power to make you anonymous to the websites you visit and to keep anonymity intact even from those routing your internet traffic (ex: your Internet Service Provider), the Onion browser can be a wise choice for those looking to use onion routing on iOS.
A word on Safari
As mentioned previously, users on iOS cannot delete Safari. Alternative browsers, including the ones listed here, are forced to use the WebKit rendering engine on iOS - which as also noted previously, is the same rendering engine found in Safari.
While WebKit itself is open source, Safari itself remains closed-source. Safari also has limited support for extensions.
This may lead users to question whether they have a real "choice" in using different browsers on iOS. The answer is... sort of.
Understandably, if the benefits to using a different browser than the default (Safari) is not there for some users, then they may opt to just use Safari. On a "walled-garden" operating system like iOS, this isn't necessarily a terrible decision in terms of privacy or security.
It’s worth mentioning that users can take some steps to customize Safari to their personal tastes, as well as tweaking it to be more privacy-friendly enough to be inline with some user threat models.
As mentioned earlier in this post, users could take steps to "harden" Safari on iOS by tweaking its settings on iOS. Hardening within the settings may include forcing HTTPS on all connections, disabling autofill, and revoking automatic location sharing with websites. On the other hand, other steps for hardening Safari will primarily come from installing trusted apps and extensions that add to Safari's ad/tracker blocking capabilities.
Criteria for private browser recommendations
At a minimum, to be listed as a recommendation on avoidthehack, privacy-oriented browsers must:
Given the modern state and role of the browser, browsers should be open-source to promote transparency above all else. Open-source browsers also promote customization in the form of building from source and/or forking as a default.
With that said, browsers forked from Firefox’s Gecko engine are preferred over Chromium forks.
Out of alpha or beta stages
Many browsers in alpha or beta stages are buggy or require additional attention to work properly. Additionally, a lot of browsers remain in a perpetual alpha or beta stage, never making it to a suitable release version.
The “best” privacy-oriented browsers provide a wealth of customization options inside the browser - without the help of extensions or add-ons - itself.
Customization allows users to tailor the browser to their wants and needs; customization in this aspect should allow for users to modify privacy-related settings, such as opting out of telemetry.
Naturally, customization is limited by the platform (operating system) on which a browser installation lives; across different operating systems, customization is relative.
Engage in limited telemetry or data collection
Browsers should not phone home any browsing related activity.
As for telemetry specifically, the browser should 1) allow users to opt-out of telemetry completely and 2) anonymize all information collected via telemetry. Browsers should not assign “unique IDs” or derive any hard to change information such as hardware UUIDs to phone home to remote servers.
There are many mobile privacy browsers on Apple's App Store that claim to be the "most private."
However, it's important to realize that true privacy browsers offer more than the equivalent of local private browsing (of which you can find in Safari's "private browsing" mode) and rudimentary ad blocking.
The privacy browsers we've put on this list give you good privacy protection when compared to many of the other web browsers out there.
Picking a browser from this list is a solid start to ensuring your data privacy on the mobile web.