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Browser-based VPNs: 3 to try if you want to improve online privacy

Easier and speedier to use than typical VPNs, these lightweight privacy boosts are handy to have around.

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Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A standalone virtual private network will almost always offer you the strongest privacy protections, but for those of us looking for something more lightweight that still ups your online security, there's a growing suite of browser-based VPNs that's worth checking into. Easier to use than standalone VPNs, Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome and Brave Browser now all offer browser-based options designed to keep you scrolling fast while hiding your IP. 

Here's what you need to know about these browser-based VPNs and what they offer. 

Read more: The best VPN services of 2021

Browser-based VPNs vs. standalone VPNs

There are three different kinds of VPNs you can opt for, and each offers a different layer of protection. 

First, there are router VPNs, which funnel all of the internet activity of everything connected to your home Wi-Fi network into their servers to keep you anonymous. Secondly, there are VPN apps for your computer or mobile -- a VPN app will protect your anonymity only on the device you've put it on, such as ExpressVPN or NordVPN.

And finally, there are browser-based proxy services and VPNs. Sometimes browser companies erroneously call their proxy services a VPN to make them sound more secure, but I've noted which are which below. Where desktop and mobile VPNs protect the anonymity of your whole device -- all internet activity in your browsers, email clients and file-sharing apps -- browser-based proxies just anonymize what happens in your web browser. They're less private and less secure, but far faster. 

Whether you opt for a browser-based VPN or not, we still recommend tweaking your browser's settings to take advantage of any current privacy options you've already got onboard. 

Brave

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Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Rather than being just a simple proxy service, Brave's built-in browser VPN for iPhone and iPad delivers a full encryption experience. Strong security often comes at the expense of speed, but not so when paired with Brave Browser's lightning speeds. 

The browser feature, called Brave Firewall + VPN, is actually a combination of its VPN and its Brave Firewall protection software which blocks trackers and malicious websites more thoroughly than most of its competitors. And unlike most other browser-based VPNs, Brave Firewall + VPN offers full device encryption. It runs $10 per month or $100 per year, and a single subscription can be used on up to five devices.  

Firefox

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Mozilla

Mozilla's VPN experience has been a bit confusing. First, its standalone VPN was known as Firefox Private Network, and then Firefox VPN. Then Mozilla launched an add-on, changed the standalone's name to Mozilla VPN, and called the add-on Firefox Private Network. Phew. 

But never mind the early confusion. The Firefox Private Network add-on is a proxy service that's worth checking out if you want a light layer of privacy while browsing on public Wi-Fi. It doesn't offer full-device encryption the way the standalone Mozilla VPN does, but it doesn't drag your speeds down or hamper your browsing experience as much either. It's also easy to use: it's single, on-off switch makes it a breeze to operate. 

And, yes, it's completely free of charge. While we usually would never recommend using a free VPN, again, this isn't really a true VPN: It's a proxy service that offers extra privacy, not the full VPN suite of tools. If you want to really cover your tracks by upgrading to a full VPN, you should always use a paid VPN service with a proven privacy track record (check out our favorite VPNs here). 

Chrome

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Angela Lang/CNET

Google Chrome doesn't have a native VPN built into it. Instead, you'll need to use a VPN browser extension from your preferred VPN to get the same effect. 

I recommend using the Chrome VPN extension from our Editors' Choice VPN service, ExpressVPN. You can also use it on Firefox, Edge, Brave and Vivaldi browsers. You'll still need to have downloaded the full ExpressVPN app, but the lightweight browser extension allows you to streamline your VPN use to just geolocation changes and a couple other core privacy features. 

In October of 2020, Google launched its own standalone VPN as part of its $100 annual bundle package for Google One subscribers with a 2TB account. If you're already a Google One user and simply looking for an extra layer of protection while using free public Wi-Fi, this VPN could be a great fit. 

If you're interested in keeping your browsing, internet traffic and usage data private from corporations and government entities, however, I'd urge you to consider carefully Google's long, storied history of sharing and collecting user data before you use any of its products. 

For more on VPNs, check out our picks for the best cheap VPNs, the fastest VPN, and how to choose the right VPN provider for working from home

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