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Want to protect your web browsing traffic when you’re on public Wi-Fi? Did you know there are browser extensions and browsers that can protect your traffic from eavesdroppers? Let’s explore browser proxy extensions (sometimes called browser VPNs) and browsers with traffic encryption.
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Imagine you’re in second grade. You want to send a secret note to a friend across the classroom. You write your message on a piece of paper, then fold it in half. There are five kids between you and your friend. Do you dare pass it across the room?
That scenario is similar to unencrypted network communication. If you browse to an unencrypted website (if the address starts with http:// rather than https://), the traffic you send and receive can be seen (and stored) by anyone between you and the web server.
This problem has become much greater with the massive increase in public Wi-Fi. When you connect to the public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, hotel, conference venue, or other large gathering, you could be sharing Wi-Fi with dozens or hundreds of others. Any one of them could be monitoring, collecting, and maybe even altering network traffic.
How to Increase Your Security & Privacy
Let’s go back to the second grade classroom. Imagine that this time you write your message in a secret code. You then drop it into a long, clear tube, and the note slides down the tube past your classmates, and lands on your friend’s desk. When your friend gets the note, they pull out a decoder that allows them to read your message. Even if your classmates look through the tube and see your note, it looks gibberish. This is similar to what a VPN (Virtual Private Network) does.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) sends your device’s Internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN service provider, so that no one between can see the traffic.
You can learn more about how VPNs work in my post When Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?
To use a VPN, you need to install an app on your device, or configure the VPN settings in your device’s operating system (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, etc.). That sends all your device’s traffic through the VPN.
Maybe you think that’s a hassle to set up, and overkill for your needs. Maybe you only care about protecting some of your browsing traffic, some of the time. If that’s your goal, then consider using a browser proxy extension.
Browser proxy extensions are sometimes called browser VPNs, but it’s more accurate to call them proxy extensions, because they just proxy your web browser traffic (they send the traffic through a different server).
Browser proxy extensions only encrypt HTTP traffic to and from your browser. All other traffic going to and from your device travels through whatever connection you’re using.
With VPN-like capabilities, this extension only encrypts your web browser data.TunnelBear
So a browser proxy extension can protect your browser traffic from eavesdroppers, but there’s a lot more we do online than browse websites. Think of the apps on your computer or mobile device. They often don’t use encrypted connections, so that traffic could be seen by others using the shared Wi-Fi. That includes DNS traffic (unless your browser uses DNS over HTTPS, or DoH), which will reveal which domains you visit. For example, someone could see that you browsed DefendingDigital.com, but they couldn’t see which pages you read on DefendingDigital.com.
For these reasons, I recommend using a full VPN rather than a browser proxy extension, when you’re on an untrusted network (such as public Wi-Fi).
Many, but not all, VPN providers offer browser extensions. Some of the best VPN providers don’t; you can only use their VPN if you install their app or configure your device, both of which will send all traffic through the VPN.
I looked for browser proxy extensions that fit these criteria:
- Available from a VPN provider with a good reputation in the security and privacy community
- Encrypts your browser traffic (rather than simply proxying it unencrypted)
- Doesn’t log traffic (doesn’t keep records of your browsing activity)
Browser Proxy Extensions for Desktop Browsers
- Private Internet Access (PIA) (Chrome, Firefox, Opera) (my #1 choice)
- Its MACE feature blocks trackers
- TunnelBear (Chrome, Firefox, Opera) (my #2 choice)
- NordVPN (Chrome) (my #3 choice)
- Its CyberSec feature blocks links to malicious websites
- CyberGhost (Chrome, Firefox)
- Windscribe (Chrome, Firefox)
- Surfshark (Chrome, Firefox)
- Its CleanWeb feature blocks links to malicious websites and phishing websites, and blocks trackers
If an extension works on Chrome, it may work on browsers that are based on Chromium, such as Brave and the new Microsoft Edge. And if an extension works on Firefox, it may work on browsers that are based on Firefox.
Desktop Browsers with Traffic Encryption
Instead of adding an extension to your browser, you could use a browser that has traffic encryption built in.
Your traffic is relayed and encrypted three times as it passes over the Tor network. The network is comprised of thousands of volunteer-run servers known as Tor relays.Tor Project
Firefox has a Private Network feature that’s in beta (currently available in the US, only on desktop, not mobile). It’s a Firefox browser extension that works for free for a limited number of hours each month.
Mobile Browsers with Traffic Encryption
You can’t install browser extensions on mobile browsers (browsers that run on Android devices, iPhones, iPads, Amazon Fire devices, etc.). So, if you want to encrypt your browser traffic on your mobile device, you’ll need to use a full VPN, or use a mobile browser that can encrypt your traffic.
There are a few, but the only ones with a good reputation in the security and privacy community are Tor Browser (Android) and Onion Browser (iPhone, iPad). Like the Tor Browser above, these use the Tor network rather than a VPN.
- When Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network)? (defendingdigital.com)
- VPN Services (privacytools.io)
- Detailed VPN Comparison (thatoneprivacysite.net)
- Choosing a VPN (thatoneprivacysite.net)
What You Should Do
- Think about how you use the Internet. If you want the ability to protect all traffic to and from your device from eavesdropping, you should use a full VPN. If you’re comfortable with only protecting your web browsing, then you can consider a browser proxy extension (or Tor browser).
- Research the VPNs, browser proxy extensions, and Tor browser options that fit your needs. See my Questions to Ask When Considering VPN Options. Of those listed in this post, my top choice is Private Internet Access (PIA).
- If you selected a VPN service, sign up for it.
- If you only want to protect your web browsing traffic, install the browser extension offered by the VPN service provider. If you want to protect all traffic to and from your device, install the VPN provider’s app, or configure the VPN settings in your device.
- Whenever you’re not using your home Internet connection or your mobile/cellular data, activate your VPN or browser proxy extension. When you no longer need it, you can deactivate it.