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Custom Chrome Browser Promises More Privacy, No Tracking
Hidden Reflex launches Chromium-based browser tweaked to block advertisers' tracking networks while speeding up page-load times.
Mathew J. Schwartz
August 30, 2013
5 Min Read
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Startup security firm Hidden Reflex is hoping that consumers who want a more private online browsing experience will choose its customized version of Google's Chrome browser.
Dubbed Epic Privacy Browser, the free, Chromium-based browser, available both for Windows and Mac OS X, promises better privacy by blocking all tracking scripts deployed by online advertising networks and their affiliates. Blocking tracking scripts also speeds page-load times by up to 25%, according to Hidden Reflex.
According to Alok Bhardwaj, founder and CEO of Hidden Reflex, in a typical one-hour browsing session Epic will block over 1,000 different tracking attempts launched by more than 40 tracking firms.
The browser, which is due out any day, has no connection to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group that's known as EPIC.
[ Is any browser really safe? Read Chrome Security Shocker Creates Password Anxiety. ]
What, if anything, do current Chrome users lose by making the jump to the Epic browser? Google, for example, is renowned for the steady stream of automatic updates it releases for Chrome, especially in the wake of bug reports. The Epic Privacy Browser will not automatically install those updates, although that's by design. "Hidden Reflex has to check the Chromium updates and distribute them," Bhardwaj told InformationWeek via email. "Google changes a lot of things -- with stuff that is privacy-invasive sometimes -- so we have to review each Chromium update and then update ourselves."
That said, the Epic browser does auto-update by default. "For the Mac, updates can be set to manual, and soon that will be the case for Windows as well," said Bhardwaj. "We want to give that option for the extremely privacy-conscious." He also promised regular updates. "We won't necessarily update as often as Chrome but will update very quickly any crucial security-related updates, probably a week or two after Chrome updates," he said.
In addition, he argued that using a browser not built by one of the major players -- Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera -- carried its own information security upsides. "As a niche browser, users are vastly safer in us than other browsers which are active targets." But he also lauded the security offered by Chrome, noting that its "tabs as a process model" had only ever been hacked via malicious extensions, but never directly.
But how can a free browser predicated on privacy -- and that blocks advertising -- earn enough money to keep its company in business? Cue sponsored search results. "We do block ads because they contain trackers, so we are walking a bit of fine line as we will earn revenue through sponsored search results," Bhardwaj said. But he said that the results would never be based on tracking, and only on the search term and rough geographical area. Furthermore, he said Epic was built to prohibit any of the company's search partners from being able to track users or their searches. "We don't want you to have to 'trust us with your data,'" said Bhardwaj. "So, for example, searches through our search engine will go via a third-party proxy to us and via HTTPS -- HTTPS means the proxy doesn't know what you're searching and the proxy means we can't know what you're searching for."
One contractual precondition of using Chromium, he said, is that "sponsored results" must be allowed to run alongside searches. On the other hand, "search is really lucrative," he said. "So if we get users and they do search with us a bit, we should be fine in terms of monetizing and be able to offer more amazing privacy services -- next for us would be a mobile browser -- at no cost, we hope."
The browser's introduction parallels a more widespread push by browser makers to increase the out-of-the-box privacy controls available to users. Mozilla, for example, said in June that, despite sharp criticism from the online advertising industry, it is advancing plans to have Firefox block by default many types of cookies and tracking technology.
Still, don't some browsers already offer privacy or incognito browsing modes of one kind or another? In fact, Bhardwaj cited a June 2013 study from security research firm NSS Labs, which noted that "private browsing does not prevent tracking, but rather it is designed to erase the history of a user's actions when the browser is closed."
To date, consumers have been left to their own devices when it comes to resisting online advertisers' tracking attempts. For starters, efforts to forge an agreement on some type of voluntary Do Not Track (DNT) flag in browsers have stalled. The capability was meant to give consumers an easy way to indicate that they didn't want their browsing activity to be tracked. But after Microsoft said that it would enable DNT by default in Internet Explorer 10, the advertising industry quit the DNT discussions in a huff.
On the legal front, despite DNT legislation having been introduced in 2011, Congress has failed to pass any laws that would force online advertisers in the United States to respect consumers' tracking preferences. Likewise, data brokers have a relatively free hand when it comes to buying and selling people's personal information.
That freedom could change, however. The Federal Trade Commission has been taking a closer interest in data brokers' information-collection practices, which could presage data brokers being required to reveal to consumers every piece of their personal information that's been tracked, recorded or sold.
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