Ranked: Security and Privacy for the Top 4 Web Browsers

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Last Updated: Sep 22, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

Let’s face it: human beings love to compare. Our insistence to quantify, judge, and rank everything under the sun has resulted in lists covering everything from the best universities to the worst Adam Sandler movies (which you can easily stream, should you dare).

Clearly, some rankings are more important than others. So how about a security and privacy ranking for the four most popular web browsers? With the average person spending anywhere between 20 to 27 hours on the Internet every week, it is natural to wonder which of the “Big 4” web browsers give us the best online security and privacy. Well fret not, because that’s exactly what we’re all here to find out.

The fantastic four (Candidates)

On one side we have Chrome and Internet Explorer, each having been, at some time, the leader in browser market share. On the other stands Safari and Firefox, the former being a favored choice for Apple users and the latter being the only major browser that is open source. With these four mighty contestants lined up, how will they be ranked?

Finding a winner: Counting stars

To decide which web browser is best in terms of security and privacy, they will be evaluated in three key areas: number of days between upgrades, an evaluation of the browser’s security features, and an evaluation of its privacy tools. Each browser will be graded (out of five stars) in each of the three areas, ultimately yielding a composite score out of fifteen.

1. Google Chrome

google-chromeChrome was launched in 2008 and is the current leader in browser market share. Given the browser’s reputation for speed and the prevalence of Google services in our lives (Web Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, etc.), it’s no surprise Chrome has quickly overtaken Internet Explorer to become the most widely used web browser today. So how does it perform on the selected criteria?

Number of days between updates: 15. Chrome is far and away the leader of the pack here. With updates released roughly every two weeks, Google works tirelessly to ensure their browser can respond to the latest threats quickly and stay ahead of the competition.5-star

Security: Google has always been known as a leader for browser security, and for good reason. In addition to leading its competitors in update frequency and scanning for harmful downloads, Google also automatically updates Chrome to the latest version, ensuring its users are always enjoying the latest security improvements and browsing features. Chrome also boasts the highest Browserscope security test scores, and Google itself has long encouraged hackers to find vulnerabilities in its own browser so they can identify loopholes and improve their offering. All said, Google’s leading position in browser security is undisputed. Unsurprisingly, all of the browsers in this ranking (besides Internet Explorer) use Google’s Safe Browsing API.5-star

Privacy: Here’s where Chrome has to be docked a few points. While the browser does offer the usual pop-up blocker and allows users to send a “Do Not Track” request along with their browser traffic, one simply cannot ignore that Chrome belongs to the company that makes millions from knowing everything about you. And although there are ways around this, it doesn’t change the fact that Google is using Chrome to learn about you and then monetizing that information. Chrome also boasts an extensive library of browser extensions, which offer a range of additional functionalities but at the cost of reduced privacy. Furthermore, since Chrome is a closed-source browser, it means we cannot crack it open to see what (if anything) is hidden in the code. That said, this is no problem if you trust Google’s stance on privacy, and there is also an open-sourced version of Chrome available.2-star

Overall: 12/15

2. Microsoft Internet Explorer

microsoft-internet-explorerBefore the release of Chrome, and if not for browsers such as Firefox and Safari, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had a virtual monopoly on browser market share. Nowadays, IE has taken a back seat to its Google rival. But there is still a sizable user base for Internet Explorer – at least for purposes of downloading Chrome on a new PC.

Number of days between updates: 30. A monthly update window puts Internet IE right in the middle of the pack. While that’s better than some of the other contestants on this list, it also means Internet Explorer users only get half the number of updates Chrome users get every year. And that, in an age of advanced malware and Internet attacks, can make a big difference.3-star

Security: While it has made large strides to improve its security features, IE’s chequered legacy will always include being one of the less secure browsers available. Currently, Internet Explorer alerts users when they are potentially visiting a malicious site or downloading something harmful. The browser also has adjustable security levels that allow users to beef up their online protection and was found in one study to lead all other browsers in detecting social engineering malware. Still, the browser has yet to rise above and lead its competitors in terms of security.4-star

Privacy: Like Chrome, Internet Explorer allows you to toggle pop-up blockers and send a “Do Not Track” request to both the sites you visit and the third parties whose content is featured on those sites. However, doing so does not guarantee your traffic will remain private. Instead, IE features a “Tracking Protection” feature that lets you subscribe to tracking protection lists. The browser will then prevent listed sites from dropping cookies onto your browser. That being said, IE is also a closed source browser, so there’s no telling what other sorts of surveillance widgets might be packaged into the browser itself.4-star

Overall: 11/15

3. Apple Safari

apple-safariThe name Safari may be foreign to most Windows users, but Apple’s own web browser was actually featured on PC until 2012, after which it became available only on Apple devices. And although Safari is the default browser for Mac, it has largely suffered the same fate that befell Internet Explorer on Windows as Chrome exploded in popularity.

Number of days between updates: 54. At close to two months, Safari is dead last for update frequency. This is quite surprising given that Safari is made by the world’s largest technology company. When compared to the top dog (Chrome), Safari updates at a rate that is slower by more than three(!) times. However, since Mac users are exposed to less Internet vulnerabilities than PC users, the lower frequency is understandable, but still troubling.1-star

Security: Although Safari doesn’t upgrade often, it does a good job of protecting you while you use it. Safari prevents suspicious sites from loading and alerts you of the potential danger. By running webpages in separate processes, Safari prevents malicious code in one page from affecting the entire browser or accessing your data.4-star

Privacy: Safari also does quite well in terms of maintaining your online privacy. Like its peers, users can tell Safari to send a “Do Not Track” request along with their browsing traffic. The browser also prevents third-party sites from leaving data in your cache by default, helping you stay anonymous online. In addition, Safari offers a range of useful extensions to safeguard your privacy. Were it not for the fact that Safari is also closed source and that it’s “Do Not Track” requests do not necessarily guarantee privacy, it would have scored a perfect 5 out of 5 here.4-star

Overall: 9/15

4. Mozilla Firefox

mozilla-firefoxOf all the browsers featured in this ranking, Firefox is the only one that is developed by a nonprofit organization. The browser is well known for its customizability and has long been a favored alternative to its brethren from Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

Number of days between updates: 28. Firefox updates every four weeks, which is the second most frequent of the browsers in this ranking. The Mozilla foundation and its thousands of coding volunteers are constantly working to ensure Firefox is loaded with the latest security and browsing features, allowing it to keep relative pace with the leader of the clubhouse, Chrome.4-star

Security: Firefox offers a suite of security features that any Internet user will appreciate: phishing and malware protection, blocking reported attack websites/web forgeries, and warning users when a site is trying to install add-ons. While it is still a step behind Chrome in this area, the difference is almost negligible. Firefox users can take solace in knowing their preferred browser is one the most secure offerings around.4-star

Privacy: Firefox was the first browser to introduce the “Do Not Track” feature. Although a revolutionary feature when it was first introduced, this is now standard across major web browsers and still requires ad networks to honor the user’s wishes to not be tracked. In keeping with the times, Firefox now also features “Tracking Protection”, allowing users to subscribe to tracking protection lists and protect themselves against cookie-dumping by third parties. When combined with its vast array of add-ons, users can be spoilt for choice when looking to enhance their online privacy. But most important of all, Firefox is the only major web browser that is open-source. This means anyone can examine Firefox’s source code, making sure there are no sketchy elements baked into the final product.5-star

Overall: 13/15

And the best web browser is…

Having evaluated this group of browsers, it wasn’t easy to find a winner. But Firefox’s enviable combination of update frequency, security and privacy features, and open-sourced nature narrowly pushes it past Chrome to claim the title of best browser for security and privacy. The final rankings then:

4. Apple Safari (9/15)
3. Microsoft Internet Explorer (11/15)
2. Google Chrome (12/15)
1. Mozilla Firefox (13/15)

Of course, there are many other important factors we could’ve included, such as browser speed and customizability. But as it stands, Firefox is ExpressVPN’s pick out of these four web browsers – and it is arguably tops in those two other categories too!

The last step to secure and private browsing

As we’ve seen, every one of the “Big 4” browsers has its respective strengths and weaknesses. While each offers a unique set of perks, each also has its own limitations – including potentially tracking your web traffic and sending it to third parties.

And try as they might to give you a secure and private browser experience, the only way to protect all of your device traffic is to use a VPN. Instead of fiddling with complicated browser settings, all you need to do is hit “connect” and let the VPN safeguard your security and privacy as you enjoy the Internet – from any browser.

2 COMMENTS

  1. And I guess because the firefox is the best browser, pwn2own decided it was not even worth bothering trying to exploit it right? /sarcasm

    • Hi there, good catch! We agree (in the article) that Chrome is better than Firefox in terms of security. But from a composite standpoint, we found Firefox to have the best combination of update frequency, security, and privacy. While none of these browsers are perfect, that gives the browser providers something to work towards!

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