The Tor Project, the organization behind the anonymous network and browser, is helping launch a privacy-focused browser that’s made to connect to a VPN instead of a decentralized onion network. It’s called the Mullvad browser, named after the Mullvad VPN company it’s partnered with on the project, and it’s available for Windows, Mac, or Linux.
The Mullvad browser’s main goal is to make it harder for advertisers and other companies to track you across the internet. It does this by working to reduce your browser’s “fingerprint,” a term that describes all the metadata that sites can collect to uniquely identify your device. Your fingerprint can be made up of simple things, like what browser and operating system you’re using, to more invasive info, like what fonts and extensions you have installed, and what input / output devices your browser has access to.
Looking at all those factors can make it easy to uniquely identify you just based on your fingerprint, without the need for things like cookies or other tracking tech. There are various tools that can show you how fingerprintable your browser is, but I personally recommend the EFF’s because it does a good job of explaining the results.
By default, Mullvad browser makes it harder for websites to fingerprint you by masking that metadata. It also blocks third-party cookies and trackers, and comes with few pre-installed plugins to reduce your fingerprint even further. (Other privacy-focused browsers like Brave say they block fingerprinting but come with a lot of extensions that could be identified if a website’s able to get around their protections.)
It’s possible to configure a browser like FireFox, which Mullvad browser (and the Tor Browser) is based on, to have similar protections. However, doing so would require at least some level of technical savvy, as you have to know which switches to flip and have the confidence that you’ve caught everything.
The idea with Mullvad is to take care of all of that for you; you can just open it and feel reasonably confident that you’re not particularly easy to track. “Developing this browser with Mullvad is about providing people with more privacy options for everyday browsing and to challenge the current business model of exploiting people’s behavioral data,” said Isabela Fernandes, executive director of The Tor Project, who is quoted in a press release.
To be clear, these measures are less helpful if you’re trying to hide from government and law enforcement tracking like the NSA, FBI, or parties working for other governments around the world. For anyone with enough resources, there are ways to track internet activity that go well beyond tracking pixels and third-party cookies.
However, most users don’t feel the need to have that kind of protection, and the truth of the matter is that getting it isn’t convenient. For all its privacy upsides, the standard Tor Browser isn’t necessarily the most user-friendly, with the biggest downside being that it’s often slow as molasses, and sites built for regular web traffic won’t always play nice with it. Those are functions of how it keeps you safe — by encrypting your traffic and bouncing it all over the world — but that can be completely overkill if all you’re trying to do is avoid creepy ads.
According to Pavel Zoneff, a spokesperson for The Tor Project, Mullvad browser is very similar to the Tor Browser, it just connects to the internet through a VPN rather than the Tor network. (It doesn’t have to be Mullvad’s VPN either; if you use another service you trust, or if you have made your own then you can use that.) Mullvad browser also doesn’t offer the Tor browser’s censorship circumnavigation user experience, access to onion sites or services, or “circuit isolation and the integration with new-identity.” But again, if you don’t know what those things are, it’s probably not a huge concern.
Mullvad browser will still likely have some usability quirks that you wouldn’t find in Chrome or another mainstream browser. Some websites get cranky about certain privacy settings and won’t work properly, and if you continuously use its cookie-cleaning feature, you may end up having to sign into services more often. But if you’re willing to make those trade-offs for a chance of being more private on the web, it may be a good place to start — though it’s worth keeping in mind that to hide in a crowd, there actually has to be a crowd. If you’re the only person using Mullvad browser, it could be pretty easy to fingerprint you; having less of a fingerprint can still be pretty identifiable if everyone else has one.