You open your browser to look at the web. Do you know who is looking back at you?
Over a recent week of web surfing, I peered under the hood of Google Chrome and found it brought along a few thousand friends. Shopping, news and even government sites quietly tagged my browser to let ad and data companies ride shotgun while I clicked around the web.
This was made possible by the web’s biggest snoop of all: Google. Seen from the inside, its Chrome browser looks a lot like surveillance software.
Lately I’ve been investigating the secret life of my data, running experiments to see what technology really is up to under the cover of privacy policies that nobody reads. It turns out, having the world’s biggest advertising company make the most-popular web browser was about as smart as letting kids run a candy shop.
It made me decide to ditch Chrome for a new version of nonprofit Mozilla’s Firefox, which has default privacy protections. Switching involved less inconvenience than you might imagine.
The tests of Chrome versus Firefox unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of web surfing It was discovered that 11,189 requests for tracker “cookies” that Chrome would have ushered right onto the computer, but were automatically blocked by Firefox. These little files are the hooks that data firms, including Google itself, use to follow what websites you visit so they can build profiles of your interests, income and personality.
Chrome welcomed trackers even at websites you’d think would be private.
Chrome is even sneakier on your phone. If you use Android, Chrome sends Google your location every time you conduct a search. (If you turn off location sharing it still sends your coordinates out, just with less accuracy.)
In 2017, Mozilla launched a new version of Firefox called Quantum that made it considerably faster. In my tests, it has felt almost as fast as Chrome, though benchmark tests have found it can be slower in some contexts. Firefox says it’s better about managing memory if you use lots and lots of tabs.
Switching means you’ll have to move your bookmarks, and Firefox offers tools to help. Shifting passwords is easy if you use a password manager. And most browser add-ons are available, though it’s possible you won’t find your favorite.
And as a nonprofit, it earns money when people make searches in the browser and click on ads – which means its biggest source of income is Google. Mozilla’s CEO says the company is exploring new paid privacy services to diversify its income.
If you care about privacy, you may switch to Firefox.