Privacy is now a priority among browser-makers, but they may not go as far as you want in fighting pervasive ad industry trackers on the web. Here’s a look at how you can crank up your privacy settings to outsmart that online tracking.
Problems like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal have elevated privacy protection on Silicon Valley’s priority list by showing how companies compile reams of data as you traverse the internet. Their goal? To build a richly detailed user profile so that you can become the target of more accurate, clickable and thus profitable advertisements.
Apple and Google are in a war for the web, with Google pushing aggressively for an interactive web to rival native apps and Apple moving more slowly — in part out of concern those new features will worsen security and be annoying for users. Privacy adds another dimension to the competition and to your browser decision.
Apple has made privacy a top priority in all its products, including Safari. For startup Brave, privacy is a core goal, and Mozilla and Microsoft have begun touting privacy as a way to differentiate their browsers from Google Chrome. It’s later to the game, but Chrome engineers have begun building a “privacy sandbox” despite Google’s reliance on ad revenue.
For all of the browsers listed here, you can give yourself a privacy boost by changing the default search engine. For instance, try DuckDuckGo. Although its search results may not be as useful or deep as Google’s, DuckDuckGo is a longtime favorite among the privacy-minded for its refusal to track user searches.
Other universal options that boost privacy include disabling your browser’s location tracking and search engine autocomplete features, turning off password autofills, and regularly deleting your browsing history. If you want to take your privacy to the next level, consider trying one of the virtual private networks CNET has reviewed that work with all browsers. (You can also check out our roundup of browser-based VPNs to try.)
In the meantime, though, here are some simple settings you can change in your browser to help keep a good portion of advertising trackers off your trail.
Chrome browser privacy settings to change
The world’s most popular browser is also generally thought to be one of the least private when used straight out of the box. On the plus side, however, Chrome’s flexible and open-source underpinnings have allowed independent developers to release a slew of privacy-focused extensions to shake off trackers.
In the Chrome Web Store, click Extensions on the left and type the name of the extension you’re looking for into the search bar. Once you find the correct extension in the search results, click Add to Chrome. A dialog will pop up explaining which permissions the extension will have for your browser. Click Add extension to bring the extension into your browser.
If you change your mind, you can manage or remove your extensions by opening Chrome and clicking the three dot More menu on the right. Then select More Tools and then Extensions. From here, you’ll also be able to see more about the extension by clicking Details.
Here are four extensions to look at as you get started: Cookie Autodelete, uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere.
If you’re on Android, sorry: extensions don’t work. So you’ll have to switch browsers altogether to something like DuckDuckGo’s app.
In the same three-dot menu in Chrome, you can also block third-party cookies by selecting Settings, then scrolling down to the Privacy and security section and clicking Cookies and other site data. From here, select Block third-party cookies.
Read more: Google Chrome privacy isn’t the best. These browser extensions will help
Safari browser privacy settings to change
By default, Safari turns on its proprietary Intelligent Tracking Prevention tool to keep you a step ahead of privacy pests. Even so, the tool hasn’t always worked smoothly since its 2017 debut. Google researchers spotted how Intelligent Tracking Prevention itself could be used to track users, though Apple buttoned down the problem.
Safari 14, announced in June and arriving later in 2020 with new MacOS Big Sur, will be able to tell you which ad trackers are running on the website you’re visiting and give you a 30 day report of the known trackers it’s identified while you were browsing. It’ll also tell you which websites those trackers came from.
To check that blocking is on, open Safari and click Preferences, then Privacy. The box beside Prevent cross-site tracking should be checked. While you’re there, you can also manually delete your cookies. Click Manage Website Data to see which sites have left their trackers and cookies hanging out in your browser. Click Remove next to any of the individual trackers you’re ready to get rid of, or just nuke the whole list by clicking Remove All at the bottom of your screen.
Cookies can be helpful, not just invasive, but for stronger privacy you can block them altogether — both first-party cookies from the website publisher and third-party cookies from others like advertisers. To do so, check the box beside Block all cookies.
If you’re still looking for another layer of privacy, you can also install helpful extensions from the App Store like AdBlock Plus or Ghostery Lite for Safari.
Read more: Safari joins browsers that tell you who’s trying to track you
Edge browser privacy settings to change
Microsoft’s Edge browser includes some simplified privacy and tracker blocking options on its Tracker prevention screen. Within Edge, select the three dot menu icon in the top right corner and select Settings. From the menu that then appears on the left, select Privacy and services.
You’ll be offered three settings to choose from: Basic, Balanced and Strict. By default, Edge uses the Balanced setting, which blocks trackers from sites you haven’t visited while still being lenient enough to save most sites from some of the loading problems that may come with tighter security. Likewise, Edge’s Strict setting may interfere with how some sites behave, but will block the greatest number of trackers. Even the Basic setting will still block trackers used for cryptomining and fingerprinting.
Read more: Microsoft Edge privacy settings to change right away
Firefox browser privacy settings to change
Firefox’s default privacy settings are more protective than those of Chrome and Edge, and the browser has more privacy options under the hood, too.
From inside Firefox’s main menu — or from inside the three lined menu on the right side of the toolbar — select Preferences. Once the Preferences window opens, click Privacy & Security. From here, you’ll be able to choose between three options: Standard, Strict and Custom. Standard, the default Firefox setting, blocks trackers in private windows, third party tracking cookies and cryptominers. The Strict setting may break a few websites, but it blocks everything blocked in Standard mode, plus fingerprints and trackers in all windows. Custom is worth exploring for those who want to fine tune how trackers are being blocked.
To apply your new tracking settings after you’ve selected your level of privacy, click the Reload All Tabs button that appears.
Read more: With Firefox, stop leaking your data across the internet
Brave browser privacy settings to change
When it comes to anti-tracking tools, Safari’s latest privacy updates are still short of most of those found in the Brave browser. By default, Brave blocks all ads, trackers, third-party cookies and fingerprinters while still achieving blazing speeds. Brave also offers a built-in Tor private browsing mode, a heavy-duty tracker blocking option, and added a built-in VPN for iOS users.
Inside Brave’s main menu, select Preferences to reveal the Settings panel on the left. Select Shields to see a list of privacy options on the right side of the screen. By selecting the Advanced view, you’ll be able to choose which kinds of trackers to block. By scrolling down, you’ll also be able to block login buttons and embedded content from Facebook, Twitter, Google and LinkedIn. For even more protection and privacy fine tuning, explore Additional Settings on the left, and select Privacy and security.
Read more: If you’re worried about your online privacy, this is the browser to use
For more, check out the best password managers of 2021 and our FAQ on the Tor browser.
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