The short answer is: Yes! You should've been using a browser focused on privacy yesteryear.
Privacy browsers are "normal" browsers that have privacy and security at the forefronts of their function. Ideally, they are open-source so that their source code can be read or compiled from source by the public
For the most part, they come with settings that favor user (read: your) privacy straight out of the box.
First, you should understand what your regular old mainstream browser does.
At its most basic function, a browser is simply software that you use to easily access the internet.
The browser does this by pulling together a list of requests for different bits of content, which often include the likes of scripts, text, and images.
It then compiles these requests, processing scripts and rendering content to spit out the webpage you typed into the address bar.
You want to visit avoidthehack! so you type
avoidthehack.com into the address field of your web browser.
The home page for avoidthehack! isn't stored in one convenient file, on a single server. Your web browser sends requests for the data and content that make up the webpage.
The servers that point to
avoidthehack.com serve up your browser's requests.
Your browser then compiles everything according to instructions laid out in code and scripts.
The final product is how you see the home page as it is in your browser.
That's a very simplified explanation of how your web browser works. Naturally, there are numerous other variables that get thrown into the exchange between your browser and the web server(s).
Notice that I used the word "exchange." The example of above might give you the illusion that information is only getting fed one way; from the servers to your web browser.
There's data being exchanged both ways.
It's important to know is that your browser isn't just requesting information from any given server(s) of the websites you visit. Your browser is also feeding information to the server(s).
This is all a normal part of accessing the internet, so the fact that your browser is feeding information to a server isn't a cause for concern. Machines must communicate both ways so that we can see the final product.
The real cause for concern is that your mainstream browsers have a tendency to overshare with every single website you visit.
This means that they share data that 1) doesn't have to be shared or 2) isn't even being requested by the other servers.
These browsers also have a tendency to "give away" certain bits of data silently.
Sometimes this is data you might not necessarily want transmitted to remote servers, such as the exact build and version of software you're running or the hardware specifics of your device.
Privacy browsers help to prevent unnecessary data from being shared with the whole internet.
These privacy focused browsers do everything your mainstream browser does. They just do everything with the privacy of you, the user, in mind.
For example, they tend to block the transmitting of your exact location, the detailed specs of your hardware, the exact version of the software you're running, or the last webpage you've visited.
In order to protect your privacy better, they perform some other additional functions as well. These functions can include automatically deleting cookies after you close the browser and blocking ad trackers by default.
These functions and their defaults might vary even amongst the more privacy focused browsers.
However, what doesn't tend to vary is their focus on protecting your data from the many prying eyes - of both the known and unknown variety - we face on the internet.
Standard "private browsing" vs. privacy focused browsers
All of the well-known and commonly used browsers have a mode that enables "private browsing." Of course,the name differs slightly between varying browsers.
For example, Google Chrome calls its private browsing feature "Incognito" whereas Microsoft Edge named the same feature "InPrivate."
It's reasonable to think that when you have your standard browser's version of "private browsing" enabled that you're doing just that - visiting websites and maintaining your privacy.
Except this isn't exactly the case.
"Private Browsing" is not nearly as private as many of us think it is.
At most, that "private browsing" feature on your run-of-the-mill web browser won't retain the likes of browsing history, search history, and cookies during or after the session.
This means that whoever jumps on the computer after you won't be able to snoop through your internet history if you use "private browsing."
However, someone using the computer after you and seeing what you were looking at on the internet is but a local threat.
This ultimately means that nothing changed when communicating with remote servers. Your browser was still oversharing information about you, your device(s), and even your network.
Don't believe me?
Here's a quick and fun experiment for you to run:
Visit WEBKAY, also known as What Every Browser Knows About You. Make sure that you're visiting the website in the browser that you use the most - this is probably Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Safari.
Read all the information that WEBKAY spits out at you.
Now open a "private browsing" window on this same browser. Visit WEBKAY again.
What information, if any, changed?
You can probably see that there is very little information transmitted to other websites that isn't censored or redacted while you're in that "private browsing" mode.
That's why "private browsing" or "Incognito" or "InPrivate" modes suck. These modes do nearly nothing for retaining even the least bit of privacy while visiting websites.
To be fair, most browsers will tell you that your web activity can still be tracked, but they still suck and honestly shouldn't be using "privacy" in their names.
Privacy focused browsers do way more than your conventional browser in "private browsing" mode.
As I've pointed out before, they can block ad trackers, stop the auto-initializing of various scripts, and redact some of the information that gets overshared by other browsers. This helps protect some of your data as you browse the web.
Privacy browsers also help put the sharing of your information back into your hands; many let the website have to request a piece of information from your browser, and have you acknowledge the request before continuing as opposed to surrendering all information from the get-go.
Web browsers that focus on privacy are not the end-all-be-all when it comes to maintaining the privacy and integrity of your data.
It's important to understand that they, like many other things, have a couple of limitations.
Privacy browsers are in no way equivalent to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks); they don't have the capacity of providing high level anonymity.
VPNs are in a league of their own for good reason. VPNs are the closest solution for providing near total anonymity on the internet for your average user.
Additionally, privacy browsers are not proxy servers. They don't route traffic through another server for any level of anonymity.
While privacy focused browsers can block various trackers, scripts, and other bits of code, they are not a replacement for antivirus or antimalware software.
Don't solely rely on a browser focused on privacy to defend you against all the nasties found on the web.
Privacy browsers give you better control of what information you broadcast to the internet, improved security, and a smoother overall user experience.
Privacy browsers improve your ability to control the information you transmit knowingly and unknowingly with websites, web services, and web apps.
We've already covered how your run-of-the-mill browser communicates often unnecessary details about you and your device(s) to remote web servers.
But did you know that the information collected about you is often sold to the highest bidder?
Did you know that the information your brower shares about you, whether you know it or not, is often stored on the servers your device communicates with.
This information can be stored indefinitely, and effectively used for a huge variety of things - all often without your explicit consent.
For example, ad trackers have been a hot topic for a long time now.
Ad trackers get stored on your browser, collecting and feeding data about you back to companies.
The companies behind these ad trackers then use this data to create highly targeted ads that seem to follow you around no matter what website you visit.
Does that mean all information your web browser transmits to other servers (and also what it receives from those servers) is bad?
Not at all. After all, machines have to be able to communicate in order to present the things that we want to see on the internet.
It's easy for many websites to really snoop on you, though. The standard settings for many more mainstream web browsers make it no harder for companies and whoever else to snoop, either.
However, it's important that you as the user realize what is being shared to other servers. Many of your mainstream browsers lack any sort of feasible ability to control this.
Also, as previously mentioned, they seem to struggle with not divulging all kinds of information without your direct knowledge, whether it was requested info or not.
I mean, wouldn't you at least like to know what's being passed on about you?
You should have the authority to determine what information you want to share with websites and web apps you connect with over the internet.
Privacy browsers give you a good portion of this authority into your hands. The defaults and included functions of most browsers focused on privacy beat those of most mainstream browsers.
What's even better is that they can be tweaked further to give you more control over the data you share.
A lot of privacy browsers block scripts and other bits of code that can execute with or without the user's (your) consent.
So, sometimes, these scripts are benign and you can choose to let them run for the websites you trust.
It may require a couple of extra clicks, but it's way better to be safe(r) than sorry.
Some privacy focused browsers, like Brave, utilize "shields" to block ad and analytics trackers as a default. You can choose whether to enable ads and trackers from websites you trust.
Keep in mind you'll still need to run a sufficient antivirus software program when you run a privacy browser. There's no substitute for a good antivirus!
Additionally, some privacy browsers like Brave and the DuckDuckGo mobile browser force the HTTPS versions of the websites you visit.
HTTPS is the more secure version of HTTP. HTTPS encrypts the data you send and receive from websites and web services.
Encryption protects and maintains the integrity of this transmitted data.
For the browsers that automatically force HTTPS, once this setting is enabled there's nothing more you need to do. This means that there is zero extra work for you to do in order to improve your online security.
Since privacy focused browsers block the loading of unnecessary scripts and files, your browsing experience tends to be faster.
Some scripts are essential to the websites you're visiting, while others are not.
Excessive, and often nonessential, scripts slow down your browsing experience. Excessive scripts are often associated with ad trackers and invasive web analytic systems.
avoidthehack! highly recommends downloading, installing, and using a browser that focuses on end user privacy and security.
These browsers give you some control over the information your browser communicates about you over the internet.
Our two favorite recommendations are Ungoogled Chromium, and old faithful Firefox.