We all want to stay safe and keep our data private while we're online. Luckily many modern-day browsers have a suite of tools to help, though they don't always do the best job promoting the privacy features on offer.
Here we're going to put that right. We'll explain all the key privacy controls in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Edge, and clarify how to limit how much of your data companies see.
We're going to skip over the Do Not Track setting you'll see in your browser. This tells the websites you visit that you don't want your browsing history logged, but it's now largely ignored by sites, and is likely to be removed in the near future.
We'll start with Google Chrome. In Chrome's settings, click the menu button (three dots, top right corner) and choosing Settings. Click Advanced to open up an extra batch of options, including the ones we're interested in, which are under Content Settings.
Right at the top is one of the most important entries in this menu: Cookies. Click on it and you can enable the Allow sites to save and read cookie data (recommended) option—which, as the label itself says, Chrome recommends that you switch on.
Cookies are little bits of text and code that websites leave on your computer: They help sites to, for example, remember your location when you've set it, or to keep track of stuff you've already added to a shopping basket.
You can browse the web without cookies, but you'll have to log into sites each time you visit them, and reconfigure your settings each time you visit them.
Most people accept the convenience for the privacy trade-off, though cookies themselves aren't hugely worrying from a privacy standpoint: They help sites recognize who you are and configure your settings, recommendations, and so on, but individual sites and web apps can't see cookies left by other sites and web apps.
Until, that is, we get to third-party cookies, under a separate setting in Chrome which is Block third-party cookies. These are more advanced cookies used by advertising networks to track you across multiple sites—because ads use different code to embed themselves into sites, they can build up a profile of your browsing history as you make your way across the web.
If you want to stop this happening, turn the toggle switch on. You can also block or allow cookies from specific sites, as well as clear cookies from specific sites as soon as you close your browser (this happens by default for incognito browsing).
Back on the main Content Settings screen you can control website and web app access to your location, webcam, microphone, clipboard, and attached USB devices. It's also possible to block "intrusive or misleading" adverts on sites by clicking Ads.
Of course Google is interested in collecting a lot more data about you as you browse the web (more so than Mozilla, Apple, or Microsoft) and it's worth remembering that even with protection enabled in your browser, your internet activity can still be logged when you're signed into sites like Google Maps and YouTube.
The privacy controls for controlling what Google records about your activities aren't available in Chrome, so we won't dive into them here, but you can find them in your Google account on the web—get more details on these and how to configure them here.
Fire up Firefox and you'll find the privacy controls for the browser under Options (or Preferences on macOS) and Privacy & Security on the Firefox menu (click the three horizontal lines at top right to access it).
Right at the top is Content Blocking—this refers to the third-party cookies we mentioned in the last section, the ones that monitor you across multiple sites. You can block these cookies from most sites in Private mode (Standard), from all sites no matter if you're in Private mode or not (Strict), or set these options more specifically (Custom).
Firefox consults a public list of known tracking cookies to try and keep your browsing private without breaking the functionality of sites and web apps. Further down the page you can also have cookies erased every time you close your browser (which happens by default in private mode). Tick the box marked Delete cookies and site data when Firefox is closed.
Underneath your cookie settings are the permissions for your computer's location, camera, microphone, and so on. These options are set on a site-by-site basis, with permissions always requested the first time they're needed via a pop-up window (click Settings to revoke or allow permissions).
Below that you can set the types of data that Firefox itself is allowed to collect, including data about the extensions you have installed and technical details about how the browser is performing.
To get to the privacy controls for Apple Safari, open the Safari menu, then choose Preferences and Privacy. You'll see cross-site tracking—or third-party cookies—is disabled by default.
Below that cross-site tracking option is an option labeled Block all cookies. As with the other browsers, you can choose to block all kinds of cookies if you don't mind the inconvenience of having to repeatedly log in and set your site preferences.
Click on Manage Website Data to see the cookies that sites have already logged with Safari and to delete that data if you want to. The final option lets you let websites check whether Apple Pay is set up on your computer—another choice between convenience and privacy that's up to you.
Click Websites to switch tabs in the Preferences dialog. Here you're able to control which sites and web apps can get at your camera and microphone, see your computer's location, and display notifications and pop-up windows.
As with the other browsers here, Safari has a private browsing mode that doesn't keep track of your browsing history and doesn't keep any cookies from that particular session once the browser window has been closed.
Lastly, we have the Microsoft Edge browser, which comes as part of Windows. To access the privacy controls in the software, click the menu button (three dots, top right), then Settings, then Privacy & security.
Under the Cookies drop-down menu you'll see Don't block cookies, Block all cookies, and Block only third party cookies—as we've explained above, this gives you the option of stopping cross-site tracking from ad networks while letting individual sites keep the cookies they need to run.
As with other browsers, the private browsing mode offered by Microsoft Edge doesn't permanently store any cookies, so if you want a quick web session that isn't remembered by your browser, it may be easier to use that mode rather than change the main cookie settings.
There are a smattering of other security settings here, but as far as privacy goes, the cookies are most important. That being said, you can to display your previous Bing searches via the Show search history toggle switch.
Websites and web apps will ask for permission to access your location, webcam, microphone, and so on as and when needed. To control these permissions, switch to the Advanced tab of Settings, then click Manage permissions.