Vegard Skjefstad

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PRISM Break: The Web Browser

In this series of entries (at least I hope it will turn into a series) on how to get as much privacy on the internet as possible, we’ll start with your core tool: The web browser.

Both the operating system you are using and your hardware is further down the stack and could also bleed information about you like a ruptured artery, but we’ll focus on what you can easily replace. Moving to a totally new operating system can be a lot of hassle for most people, and very few of us are capable of building our own hardware – but the web browser should be replaceable without too much effort.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up a site, PRIM Break (you really didn’t think I’d come up with this wonderful pun myself, did you?), where they list a lot of software alternatives with better privacy compared to the software people would normally use.

Their web browser suggestion is Firefox.

My current browser is Chrome, which is developed by Google. Before that, I used Opera exclusively. Both are great browser, but they suffer from the same problem: They are proprietary, closed source browsers. The rendering engine they use is open source – as of Opera 15 both browsers use the same rendering engine – but the rest of the browser code is not available for public review, so there is no way of knowing how your private data is handled by Chrome and Opera.

Firefox, on the other hand, is open source. It’s also the browser of choice for the Tor Project. Tor is described as “free software for enabling online anonymity”, and because of this it attracts both shady figures who dabble in illegal activities and people who need to stay anonymous on the internet for political reasons. It’s fairly safe to assume that people who rely on anonymity to stay out of jail have had a look at the Firefox code and can vouch for Firefox’ ability to keep your secrets relatively safe.

One of the reasons I started to use Chrome was that it was incredibly fast, had a lot of extension available and a great synchronization service, so that I could synchronize everything between browsers on various computers. If you are currently using Chrome, you won’t actually miss anything if you move to Firefox. The HTML rendering and JavaScript engines are not as fast, at least not in my experience, but it’s close. When it comes to extensions, Firefox has a massive amount of add-ons to chose from and a brilliant synchronization system that works just as well as Chrome’s, if not better. You can even set up your own Firefox Sync server (which is also open source) to truly keep you data safe. I’ve done this myself and it works like a charm – I’m hoping to put up a guide on how to set up a Firefox Sync server on Ubuntu in the not-so-distant future.

Firefox is also available on Android, and although the first versions of Firefox for Android was kind of sluggish, the current version is absolutely fantastic. One of the greatest features is that it can use many of the same add-ons as the desktop browser, for instance AdBlock, and that it syncs in mostly the same way as the desktop version.

The way I see it, it’s really no reason not to make the move to Firefox – both on desktop and mobile – even if privacy on the internet is not something that concerns you.


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