New security and privacy concerns, are forcing phone users to look beyond pre-installed big -name browsers at safer, less snoopy options. Here are a few that we tried.
By Anand Parthasarathy
January 13 2020: Americans have an earthy saying: 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch!' And leading US-based Internet companies, seemingly swear by this mantra. So when we use their email services, browsers , and video sites, for free, they see no ethical problem in scooping up all the data from such usage. Some pre- installed mainstream browsers and search engines, track our every action -- even when we choose a so-called a 'incognito mode'. Soon they have a startlingly personal profile of YOU, which then becomes a commercial commodity. But-- and I quote a new browser, DuckDuckGo -- 'The Internet shouldn't feel so creepy, and getting the privacy you deserve online, should be as simple as closing the blinds!"
If you feel vulnerable and used, there are options: third party tools to browse and search that promise to respect your privacy, to not monitor your web history -- and to prevent others from doing so. Here are some half a dozen I have tried and each has some good privacy features. And all these tools , are free.
Opera: VPN pioneer
Opera, the independent browser whose DNA is Norwegian, was the first to include for free a hitherto paid service -- VPN or Virtual Private Network. This is useful for Internet users who connect to public Wi-Fi in coffee shops, airports and hotels. The VPN will send users’ request through a secure tunnel that encrypts Internet traffic from mobile devices using strong 256-bit algorithms. This reduces the risk of malicious third parties collecting sensitive information and hides users' physical location, making it hard to track their behavior on the Web. I am told by visitors to China, that many browsers or email clients, especially those known to be of US origin won't work there. If you are a visitor, a VPN installed on your phone will overcome this problem too. Some 160 million Indian users are known be using Opera with VPN.
Firefox: Clears your history
The original Open Source browser from the Mozilla Organisation, took a long time to come out with a mobile version. But when it did , it brought strong protections: the ability to block 2000-plus trackers from chasing you; automatically clearing your browsing history to leave no trace. Says Firefox: "(With us), your personal data is safe. We will never sell it for profit".
Vivaldi: Make it your own
The desktop browser created by Norway-based ex-Opera founder Jon von Tetschner in 2016, made customizability its USP. It launched a mobile version, just 4 months ago, retaining its unique touch and feel. I find it great for taking notes within the browser, or mashing information from multiple searches onto a single page. Vivaldi cannily turned to another player DuckDuckGo for its default search engine to leverage its heightened privacy. You can also switch to your favourite search engine on the fly
DuckDuckGo: You are in control!
While researching for this article I stumbled on the fact that in addition to its secure search engine, DuckDuckGo also offers its own brand browser. The motto of this US product: 'Take back control of your personal information'. As you a search or browse, it flashes a Privacy Grade rating which shows you who they caught trying to track you.
Brave: See ads if you choose
I am a bit mixed about this very new browser from the US. In its default mode it blocks all trackers and ads and displays how many it blocked with every page you open, and how many seconds this saved. But it also has a deal with advertisers to display "safe" and relevant ads, if the users choose and then rewards them with a monetary incentive.
Popshot: Interactive browser
I include this for completeness as it is a new product just 6 months old and has already captured 4 lakh users in India, with its interactive features, although I did not see any specific privacy features claimed. Jointly developed in France and India, its key feature is something I loved. You can take a screen shot with a single touch, instead of grappling with two buttons simultaneously as most phones require. It is a very "lite" product and works with just 1GB of RAM.
To conclude, I am not suggesting you straight away remove the default browser of your phone, be it Chrome or Safari or UC Browser. But why not install one of these independent browsers and see if they help even a teeny bit, to pull that curtain on your Internet persona?