February 1, 2021

Browsers, Privacy, and Research Part 2

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen
Most recent edit: 6-11-2021

In Part 1, I gave a brief overview of things that are happening in the wild world of browsers. After I commenced my research, I learned that there is a prairie schooner-full of possibilities including several I know nothing about, so most of this discussion is based on personal experience. Remember, I am using a Windows 10 desktop.

We need to be secure from spying, tracking, and hacking. Personal experiences and observations using several browsers. Some may even be surprising.
Credit: Freeimages / Armin Hanisch

In this day and age, we need to be secure from spying, hacking, and tracking.

Something else that bears repeating is that most Windows browsers will get you where you want to go — right out of the box. Which browser is the "best"? Looking at reviews, there is conflicting information. Many times, reviewers use benchmarks (of which there are many, and some view them with mistrust), which should explain why reports on which is fastest are inconsistent. I have also seen conflicting information regarding privacy settings.

A brief comment on browser speed is in order: Someone can have the fastest browser this side of the Pecos and an excellent connection, but sites and servers out yonder can be slow. Check connections to other familiar sites before blaming a browser for being slow.

An area of concern is fingerprinting. Actually, this is where being unique is detrimental. I tested eight browsers at once (my computer is thinking about reporting me for abusing it) with Cover Your Tracks, there are other sites to check them as well. It was nowhere near scientific, because some have add-ons, some have privacy protection built in, and Chrome was used mostly "as is" because I did not add privacy extensions. Six were reported as having good protection, with Brave randomizing the fingerprint as well. Vivaldi was good, with "some gaps". The test on Chrome indicated that I am not protected against tracking. Interesting, because there are polarized results between being very secure or sucking rotten eggs.

Ironically, add-ons to enhance privacy such as blocking trackers can make you identifiable. Technology is constantly changing. The best way to avoid being tracked on the web is to stay off it. Unless someone wants to adopt a hermit lifestyle, that doesn't seem possible. We do what we can to mitigate damages. A VPN (virtual private network) can help, but like everything else I've examined, is not an absolute guarantee of privacy. I don't have one except for the one built into the Opera browser and an extension I use on occasion. Interesting that according to customer service, my provider had blocked a creation science site on their servers, so that Opera VPN got me around that. It turns out that the representative was full of hooey, because a new modem solved the problem. Still, the VPN worked in that situation.

To be direct, I think some privacy concerns are overblown. Using a secure browser on a secure website with a padlock in the address bar means it is usually safe for the average user that wants to check banking information, credit card status, or make a purchase. But then, doesn't it help to use fake names on social(ist) media? Asking for a friend.

I suspect that built-in browser anti-tracking as well as related extensions are a good reason that stats for websites are inaccurate. Someone could very well visit a site but it does not register. In fact, when I had a statistics counter embedded to record sites, I usually had information on the operating system, browser, language, location, and so on. I just tried a couple of browsers on a site that has a stats log that is made visible to the public ("see my stats"), and it didn't know I was there.

On the other hand, I get a mite nervous when I need to do some research on a sensitive topic. (No, I'm not exploring the deep dark web, I wouldn't know how.) The internet provider knows where I am going, but I don't want to announce search terms to the world through Google trackers. A secure browser and a non-tracking search engine (I use DuckDuckGo) can help.

A humorous side note now. In Murder by Death, Tess asked detective Sam Diamond, "Why do you keep all those naked muscle men magazines in your office?" Sam replied, "Suspects! Always looking for suspects!" I can imagine someone asking why I was visiting sites of which they may disapprove, and I would answer, "Research!" They can believe me or not.

Now let's consider some browsers themselves. It seems that people are fanatical about their favorites, but like I said last time, there's no need to feel married to one, and using different browsers for different applications helps in the privacy department. No need to cover all the features and things because many are similar in each. You savvy? Also, tests on speed and things vary. People test them in labs (the results between testers disagree at times), but I'm discussing my experiences.

While most offer to store your passwords and seem to be secure, many people do not allow that. I don't. Instead, I use a password safe that generates unique secure passwords — even I don't know them. You have to have a master password to get in, then you can copy and paste, or use a password manager that synchronizes all of them. Mine works on multiple browsers as well as the desktop version. Seems safer that way.

Sure is annoying to tweak each browser's dictionary and add specialized words that I have to use such as uniformitarianism and mitochondrial DNA, but that's the way it goes.

When doing your own research, check the dates. This child has seen harsh reviews of, say, Edge, but they were several years old and the browser has changed quite a bit for the better since then.


Opera

This will be short because it's not in my heavy rotation. Part of the problem is that it's partly or mostly controlled by the ChiComs, and I don't want them in my home any more than they are already. However, it does work. I don't know if it was an earlier release, but if I rightly recollect, there was something a bit off about the way it rendered pages, but I don't see that happening now. It is considered good for privacy concerns such as tracking, and will probably let you make a secure online purchase.


Firefox

This one was an old friend. I lost interest for a while, but it has had substantial upgrades and is my current default browser. It scores well in privacy areas. You can save and synchronize your bookmarks across several devices, and even have them saved in your account. That was helpful when I upgraded to a new computer and installed FFX, but the best (and most detailed) way is to back up your profile. They give you instructions for that on the site. It also has blockers for ad tracking that I supplement with extensions, but more about those next time.

There was a "notes" function at one time, but that was apparently put out to pasture. Well, we do have other software for that. Also, the "Take a Screenshot" function can be accessed with a right-click. I like this one better than in other browsers that have it.

Our break-up was difficult for me. After FFX did a hard left politically and hypocritically promoted internet censorship, I uninstalled it. Too bad for many reasons, one of which is that I didn't want this to be a political article. The rest of it is not, however.

I read mixed reviews of the Pale Moon browser, but those that were most negative were older, so I'm giving it a test drive. There were some features and extensions in Firefox I wasn't happy to go without, but this fork seems adequate. Interestingly, one internet test of browser security rated it higher than the Brave browser, but it appears that my internet fingerprint on it is like sending up a flare. It will be for occasional use. Like the others, it works immediately after installing.

EDIT: Pale Moon was all right, but I replaced it with Waterfox. All the advantages of Firefox (including the ability to install add-ons) but without the political stuff from its owners — that I could find, anyway. 


Forking

Despite the faults of Google, they seem to be looking out for us regarding hacking. This weblog is a Google property, and I have 2-factor authorization enabled. I just signed into this account and had three alerts, including on my Android phone. Coupled with the strong password, that account feels protected.

The rest of the browsers discussed below are "forks" or modifications of the Chromium browser source code, which is the foundation for Google's Chrome. I have used several that are more secure than Chrome. No need to switch and ditch, folks can see what they like. Some are so much like Chrome, the user will have to check to see which browser is currently running. For the most part, extensions are compatible and can be downloaded from the Chrome store.


Avast Secure Browser and CCleaner Browser

For writing this section, I switched to the Avast browser.

Some folks have burrs under their saddles because the Avast! antivirus company was allegedly using a company that shared data. This was rectified, but I've seen some sites that are unforgiving. The antivirus itself usually has a high rating, even for the free version. To complicate matters, Piriform makes CCleaner, which has an almost identical browser — and Avast! owns Piriform now, so why have two browsers? 

People were irritated because there was software bundling going on; they suddenly discovered a new browser was  installed! If they weren't paying attention and opting out, they could simply use Revo Uninstaller or something else and remove it.

The CCleaner and Avast browser work, and they seem to try very hard to keep the user safe. Ad blocking, anti-fingerprinting, blocking phishing sites, anti-tracking, webcam guard, and more. They also guard against extensions, so the user needs to confirm that they are indeed wanted and not forced extensions from nefarious sites. Some malware will try to add something without the user's knowledge, and this guard shows up when I go to the Chrome Web Store to download an extension. I actually had to allow some extensions twice, so that cuts down on browser hijacking. By the way, I did not download adblock extensions during my testing and these still scored well in that fingerprint test mentioned earlier.

Again, they are very much like Chrome, but more secure. If a user has the Avast! antivirus, their browser links up with it for Banking Mode. Although I do not have it on this computer, I remember how Banking Mode pretty much isolated the browser from other parts of the computer; I needed to use other keys or disengage it to do other things. Check banking information, credit cards, whatever else, then exit and go about other business.

Between, the two, I preferred Avast! to CCleaner. I used Avast! as my default browser for a few weeks and was mostly satisfied. Having a passel of tabs open for reference while working on articles caused some difficulties, but I reckon I'm an exception, not the rule.


Edge

Some people just have to live on the edge. Now I am writing using the Edge browser. Yeah, I know, people love to hate Microsoft while using their products at the same time. Internet Explorer was dreadful, which prompted competition from Netscape. That, in turn, evolved into Firefox. IE was improved over the years, and apparently Microsoft had a chimera of IE that they called Edge for Windows 10 users. Gallop ahead to today, and Edge is another Chromium-based browser that has its own extensions library, but also accepts them from the Chrome Web Store.


It feels  more robust in rendering sites and videos, but I'll allow that it may be just my imagination. Edge has been reliable and fast. It, too, scored well in my fingerprint security test. I also read conflicting reports: great on anti-phishing, bad on being hacked in a test — in 2017! Even so, I gave it a fair trial by making it my system default browser for a few weeks, and did so again later.

It integrates with the user's Microsoft account, but that is not mandatory. I found it helpful. Also, it can synchronize your data (including collections, favorites, extensions, and so on) to that account and also other devices.

A researcher may be interested in something they call "Collections". A page can be saved into a panel that is accessible through a command or keyboard shortcut, then retrieved later:

Ready to add a page to a collection
In addition, text can be selected and added to a collection as well, easily added with a right-click of the mouse. I even made a couple of collections that are only text. This feature seems to work like OneNote, and since it, too, synchronizes in the account, I can work on things with my smartphone. F'rinstance, I pondered a topic, made notes or saved links in collections, and added to it on the go. Don't expect to write a novel in the collections area, characters are limited. Make another note in the collection and keep going.

Edge also has a built-in web capture (screenshot) capability that is easily accessed through a right-click. From there, notes can be added and there is a "draw" thing that I do not use. It's useful, but when quick action is needed, slapping that Print Screen button is mighty handy, and I can paste it into photo editing software right quick-like.

Unless I'm missing something, the ALT+Tab that normally lets one scroll through applications gets troublesome. I can have many tabs open, but when I want to go back and forth between Edge and, say, LibreOffice Writer, it moves to the next tab instead of to the application. Tricky, so I have to use the mouse and click between the two. It's difficult to be me.

EDIT: The ALT+Tab problem had to be solved in my Windows 10 computer settings. Also, Edge has added the option to move the tabs to the side, something available in Vivaldi (with a vengeance). You can do that with a click, and put them back just as easily.

Vivaldi

Now I'm using the Vivaldi browser, and have a few things to say about it. Like the others, it will do what it's supposed to right away. It was initiated around 2015 by someone who was on the prod with the Opera company's actions. With the enthusiasm to make something else that is better, Vivaldi is lacking in some areas. 

I was unable to import bookmarks very well. It shoved them all into a folder called "Imported", so I had to make my own folders and move bookmarks into them. Reading the forums, there are several items that have not been addressed (such as typing a site name and then pressing CTRL+Enter to reach a destination; a minor detail that could have been easily fixed). It has problems enabling extensions, such as Speed Dial 2, which was ruined by a Vivaldi update. EDIT: They fixed that later, but I have to hit the "Home" button. Also, the user has to hunt for solutions for some things that are not issues in other browsers.

This is another one that I used as a default browser for a few weeks, then I went back to Firefox. It seems clunky and there is a lack of professionalism to it. It promises to be secure, but I lack belief that this is a promise on which I can hang my hat. Seems like they spent a lot of time making it customizable and gimmicky rather than robust. It seems faster to me than some other browsers.

There are a couple of things that I found very useful for writing and research. We can stack tabs and screen-tile them side-by-side. My usual approach when featuring an article is to write an introduction, add some thoughts and other links, excerpt, link to finish reading, and often a video at the end. Some rather involved articles require frequent reference, so I can tile them next to each other. 

The "Notes" feature is interesting and useful, but I disliked it at first. It is available in the side panel. Highlight text and send it to a note, or open it up and add some thoughts. Use Vivaldi's screen capture tool (which I forgot to mention) and add it to a note, and format it if you've a mind to. Also, a note can be inserted into an article.

At first, I detested Notes and went to Edge to work with the Collections thing. Whether I missed it or a subsequent update made improvements, I don't know, but the Notes function is useful to me again. You see, I didn't want to use the small side panel, but it turns out that a user doesn't have to do it that way.

A bit tricky, but the user can start a new note from the main menu, then "tools", then "Notes". This launches a new tab and existing notes are available. Click the + to start a new note. Typing essentially gives the note an automatic title, which is easily changed by typing something else at the beginning. For some reason, a note does not begin at the left margin, so be aware of that. In the side panel, click Notes, then the + sign to start a new note. But it's small. This is remedied by double-clicking the title, and that tab opens to provide plenty of work space.

Something very useful in all this is the aforementioned page tiling. When writing a weblog, the workspace and the notes can be tiled in a split screen for easy reference.

Notes and tab tiling are two big reasons that I have not scrapped this browser. Again, it does browser stuff as well as the others. It also seems to be a bit faster. At one point, I was keeping Vivaldi as a standby, but it has had substantial updates and is my unregistered assault browser of choice for writing.

Brave

I was afraid of the Brave browser (see what I did there?) because it has some unusual attributes. There are some negative things to say, but let's be clear: it seems to be faster, and I tried it out as my default browser for a few days.

It blocks ads and tracking. Sometimes it can break a site, so the user must switch off the shields for a while, or permanently on certain sites. Brave has a strange cryptocurrency token thing happening with "Brave Rewards" where users get "paid". To do that apparently requires a lot of browsing on participating sites, and someone could make a few grotzits. Ain't no way I'm giving the bank information to Uphold so they can verify my wallet.

This is all opt-in or opt-out, so people don't need to let this concern them. Those who want to investigate and are excited by cryptocurrency, investigate and see how it goes.

People are excited by this newcomer. Brave is by no means the first one with an emphasis on privacy. This one is strong on security and blocking trackers. Not a lot of bells and whistles, but it's fast and gets the job done, and many people are enthusiastic about it. It keeps offering to save passwords even when that is switched off in settings, but that will probably be fixed later.

In the previous article, I mentioned "incognito" or "private browsing". Usually, this works as a "safe mode" where extensions are disabled. No private browsing window is going to give the user added security on the web. They do not store history, cookies, and whatever from that session; my wife won't be able to find out that I was looking to buy her a talking moose head for her birthday. Brave gives you an option of a regular private window or one with the Tor "onion routing" network, which gives more security.

The people behind the Gab social media service have a fork of Brave called Dissenter. It still needs polish, but is supposed to have speed and security. EDIT: Dissenter just went into my Do Not Use warning list. Slow to update (if the user can figure out how to do that in the first place) and other quirks prompted me to uninstall it. Then I had to figure out how to fix the computer so it would go online again. Coincidence? Maybe. So, Dissenter just seems to be a platform for the social media extension of the same name. My recommendation is that if someone really must use Dissenter, they should only use it for that purpose and select a better browser for their primary.

Concluding Thoughts

We covered several browsers. Some of them may have seemed surprising, but I thought they worked well for the most part. I really want to say again that there is no cost or commitment, and people may want to seriously consider different browsers for different purposes. Or maybe family members. If you want to check some out, the links are above in the product names.

Hindering the efforts of trackers and hackers and spies (oh my) does not begin or end with safe browsers. While that is important, we must keep our computers ready. After all, technology is constantly changing, so something might burrow through the shields. A reliable virus scanner is essential, as is malware protection. When the software calls home and wants to apply updates, let it. They are often just facelifts, but we don't want to let repairs get left outside in the rain — updates can contain security fixes.

At one time, I used CCleaner. It would clean out tracking cookies, the cache of browsers, and the registry. Some folks didn't like it, and one made the assumption that since people only use one browser anyway (yeah, right), he had some tedious instructions on how to go without CCleaner. I kept using it until I got this new computer. Free software called Glary Utilities was recommended. Glary Utilities and CCleaner both have free and paid versions, but I don't need the higher level. I run Glary Utilities every day for cleaning out the registry, check for spyware and malware that got through, erase tracks, and more.

The final part in this series is what I consider the most fun: browser extensions. No, I'm not going to throw out a list of "must have" items, but those that have been helpful in my research and writing. Quick note: people who go wild with extensions and customizations are taking risks with their privacy. You can find the third part here.

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