Several iOS browsers claim to protect your privacy, but not all are created equal. We tested four popular options to see which ones do the trick.
IOS browsers have come a long way since the early days of the iPhone and iPad. From the start, Steve Jobs promoted the iPad as a superior option for consuming content, including web browsing, than the iPhone or the iPad. Reality, however, took a long time to deliver on the promise.
However, current iOS web browsers largely deliver on this promise. The majority of options, especially on the iPad, allow a user to access full versions of websites, rather than removing mobile options. Some, like iCab, offer features, customization, and capabilities that rival their desktop counterparts. Many promise to protect user privacy, block ads, and prevent websites from tracking them.
We tested four popular options against the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Cover Your Tracks tool. Cover Your Tracks provides an overview of “how trackers see your browser”. More importantly, it shows how well a browser’s anti-tracking technology works.
Brave promotes itself as a privacy-focused browser and doesn’t shy away from claiming to offer the best out-of-the-box privacy. In fact, Brave claims that its browser specifically offers “better default privacy than Firefox.”
In terms of standard features, Brave offers a lot of options you would expect from a modern browser, but one of its big draws is its new approach to rewarding content creators. Because Brave aggressively blocks ads, the company has its own cryptocurrency that users can earn by viewing privacy-aware, untracked, and Brave-approved ads. The currency, Basic Attention Token (BAT), can then be used to reward creators.
Brave also includes basic sync, though not nearly as powerful as all of the other browsers on this list. Users can securely link their devices, keeping settings and bookmarks synchronized across all devices.
Unfortunately, for people with an iPad-only workflow (like yours), there’s no way to import bookmarks from other browsers. This requires having access to a desktop version, using it to import bookmarks from another browser, and then syncing them with the mobile version.
When it comes to privacy, Brave has a lot of great privacy features. It has built-in ad blocking and anti-tracking features and generally does a good job. Brave includes a built-in VPN for a monthly fee, adding an extra layer of protection. Does this live up to the hype? Is this the most private out-of-the-box browser? Does it beat Firefox?
Here’s how it is measured in the EFF Cover Your Tracks test.
iCab is one of the most complete iOS browsers, if not the most complete. iCab has user profiles, kiosk mode, the ability to sync with iCloud, Dropbox and Firefox Sync, full screen mode and more.
One of the biggest features it has is the ability to set the browser user agent. This is especially useful for websites that search for a specific browser, such as Chrome or Edge. Regardless of which rendering engine their desktop counterparts use, all iPad browsers use Apple’s WebKit engine that powers Safari. By changing the user agent to match what a website is looking for, you can trick many websites into bypassing their requirements.
iCab also has hundreds of built-in content filters to thwart ads and tracking, as well as the ability to add and customize your own.
So how did iCab cope with EFF’s Cover Your Tracks?
Interestingly, iCab’s powerful features come to its rescue, making it easy – and for free – to significantly improve its privacy. iCab is the only browser tested that allows the user to install third-party privacy, ad blocking, and filtering lists, including those that form the basis of popular content blockers.
Just go to Settings> Tools> Filters, click the “+” button and select EasyList Filters. iCab will take you to the EasyList Filters website. Under EasyPrivacy, click on “add it to your ad blocker”. The EasyPrivacy list will now be directly integrated into iCab.
What is the impact of this upgrade on iCab?
Safari is the de facto standard on Apple devices, shipped with every iPhone and iPad, in addition to every Mac. Based on WebKit, the open source browser engine developed by Apple, Safari is a full featured browser that offers a good combination of functionality and privacy.
By default, Safari includes Cross-Site Tracking Prevention and blocks pop-ups. Since Safari is Apple’s own web browser and deeply integrated with iCloud, it also includes some of the most comprehensive sync options, keeping bookmarks, history, saved passwords, open tabs, and more synchronized between devices.
So how did it go until the Cover Your Tracks test?
Interestingly, we ran the test again after installing the free AdGuard content blocker. The resulting improvement was significant.
Firefox is one of the best known alternative browsers. With roots going back to the original Netscape browser, Mozilla’s Firefox has a long history among web browsers, although it has been eclipsed by Google’s Chrome in recent years.
Besides Safari, Firefox offers the easiest and most comprehensive sync option available, called Firefox Sync. Register an account and data is securely synced between devices, including bookmarks, open tabs, history, and saved passwords.
Like Brave, Firefox is touted as a privacy-focused browser that protects the user. Firefox includes its Enhanced Tracking Protection feature, which includes two different settings: Standard and Strict.
Firefox warns that enabling Strict Protection may damage some websites and prevent them from viewing or functioning properly. However, in our extensive testing, we have yet to experience this.
So how does Firefox measure up? Like Safari, we tested it twice, with both standard and strict Enhanced Tracking Protection turned on.
Just like the addition of AdGuard to Safari, enabling the Strict option in Enhanced Tracking Protection has significantly increased the level of protection offered by Firefox.
As with all testing, there are a few caveats to keep in mind.
We tested iCab with the built-in filters enabled and did not customize or add any manual filters. While this would likely have increased the protection offered, it is also beyond the level of expertise of most people. Figuring out which trackers to block, and then using regular expressions to do so, is more than anything, but the most dedicated privacy freak is up for it.
We did, however, take advantage of iCab’s ability to add pre-packaged filters. This is a relatively easy step, for users of all technical levels, and has significantly improved the privacy offered.
In the case of Brave, we only tested it once because there is no way to change its privacy settings, without paying a monthly subscription for the built-in VPN. Otherwise, what you see is what you get.
However, we tested Safari twice, adding the free AdGuard for the second test. We did this because installing a content blocker from the App Store is a straightforward, straightforward process that Apple customers are already familiar and comfortable with.
Likewise, we tested Firefox twice as it was simply a matter of changing a single setting to increase the level of protection offered.
It’s also worth noting that while no browser has checked Do Not Track policies, it’s not as important as Cover Your Tracks suggests. The truth is, the Do Not Track option has never been widely used in the industry, largely because websites weren’t required to honor a browser’s request – and often did. blatantly ignored. As a result, some services have completely stopped sending the header.
First place: Firefox
Of the four browsers tested, Firefox offers the best level of protection, without installing additional add-ons, and is the clear winner. Changing a setting in the app provides a high level of protection, while other browser features add a level of convenience surpassed only by Safari.
Second place: link between Safari and iCab
Safari and iCab came in second.
While Safari’s default privacy is very similar to that offered by Brave or iCab by default, installing a single free add-on brings it on par with Firefox on Strict. The browser also includes Apple’s usual level of integration and convenience, thanks to iCloud sync.
iCab is tied for second place. Its privacy does not match Firefox by default, but the relatively simple process of installing the EasyPrivacy filter partially gives it the Strict protection of Firefox and Safari with Adguard. Plus, the powerful browser features are unmatched by any web browser on iOS / iPadOS. As a result, iCab is one of those browsers that should be on every iPhone or iPad user’s must-have app list.
Third place: Brave
Brave comes in third place … by far. Truth be told, unless you already use Brave on the desktop or have invested heavily in Brave’s BAT, there isn’t much to recommend on iOS / iPadOS. The browser doesn’t offer better privacy than Firefox (as it claims), nor does it beat Safari in terms of convenience, and it certainly doesn’t have the powerful features of iCab. In fact, without also using the desktop version, it is crippled by poor sync capabilities and no way to import bookmarks. These are likely issues that will be addressed in future updates – especially since Brave is the newest of the four browsers – but for now, the other options do what they do… only better.