by Tom McNamara / July 18, 2016
Ghostery Privacy Browser comes with the popular Ghostery ad blocker extension built in. This is an advantage, because Google Chrome -- by far the most popular browser on Android -- does not allow extensions. But by putting "Privacy" in the name of the app, Ghostery is aiming for a high standard that it doesn't meet as consistently as other browsers like Firefox or Orfox do.
Ghostery's ad blocker performs as you would expect: If you've used the desktop version of the Ghostery ad blocker (Chrome, Firefox), you'll be at home in Ghostery Privacy Browser. Visually, it's barely different: You get the familiar icon to the right of the address bar that counts off how many things it's blocking, and you can tap that icon to add the website to your whitelist or to stop blocking particular ads. In our informal testing, the Android version of Ghostery appeared to block as well as the desktop version.
Ghost Mode (aka incognito or private mode) does not give itself away: Incognito mode makes a browser stop storing cookies and your search history. In Chrome, when you switch to incognito mode, an icon shows up in the Android status bar at the top of the device's screen, to the left of the address bar. So anyone glancing over your shoulder can tell when you're using it. With Ghostery, the browser just switches from a light theme to a dark theme.
Ghostery wants to collect your usage data: This seems like an odd decision for a browser that's marketed as private. If you don't opt out, Ghostery will share your usage data with Crashlytics (owned by Twitter) and Flurry (owned by Yahoo). This is how the company makes money to develop its browser. But if you want details on the data collection, the location of that information is obscured: When you view the browser in portrait mode, the text explaining the data sharing is cut off. If you tap it, you'll get the full paragraph, which on our 2560 x 1440 screen had plenty of room to fit the extra lines to begin with. The complete version of the cut-off sentence reads, "To find out more about how we use data please visit our privacy statement."
The privacy statement is elusive: The statement is not provided or linked to on the page where you decide whether or not to opt in to Ghostery's data-sharing partnerships. First you have to decide whether to opt in to data collection. Then you tap the three buttons in the upper right to open the browser settings, tap the gear icon, tap the About tab, scroll down to Privacy Statement, then tap that to read the statement. The document is integrated within the browser rather than being a webpage, so you can't bookmark it, share it, or copy a URL to use somewhere else. We could not find a Privacy Statement specific to the mobile browser anywhere on Ghostery's website, or elsewhere on the Internet. The product page on the Google Play Store links to a landing page on Ghostery's website that contains several legal documents, none of which are the statement in question. Since Google Play Store classifies this app within the range of 500,000 to 1,000,000 downloads, this lack of external access to the statement is unfortunate and troubling.
Interface is hit-or-miss: Given the limited screen space of a mobile browser, we'd like to be able to hide app elements that aren't necessary when browsing a website. Unfortunately, Ghostery doesn't let you hide the address bar, and it doesn't reflow text (resizing paragraphs of text to fit on your screen when you zoom in). In fact, we usually couldn't zoom in on text at all. The browser also lacks typing prediction, so its navigation suggestions are restricted to your history. But if you're using a browser for its privacy, you probably aren't enabling prediction anyway, since that usually requires sending your search queries to Google or Bing for analysis. Despite those drawbacks, a variety of webpage types loaded smoothly for us, from image-heavy news portals to Twitter feeds.
Ad-blocking options: We appreciate that the ad-blocking element of the browser lets you decide exactly which webpages and specific ad servers are allowed to show you ads. On mobile, ad blocking is usually all-or-nothing, which is a problem if you want the option to support a given website by letting some or all of its ads through. Disabling the whole ad blocker is like taking off your seat belt in the middle of traffic instead of adjusting it.
It's hard to recommend Ghostery Privacy Browser over Firefox with an ad blocker extension. Unlike Chrome, the mobile version of Firefox supports extensions just fine, although not as many as the desktop version. Firefox will hide its address bar when you scroll; sync your bookmarks, tabs, and settings across devices; save pages as PDF files; let you manually add your own search engine integration; remember your recently closed tabs; and provide search and navigation suggestions as you type into the address bar. Firefox also does not share your usage data. Instead, owner Mozilla generates revenue through a partnership where Firefox uses Yahoo as its default search engine (which these days is actually Microsoft's Bing search engine under the hood). Firefox is also open-source, so its code is free for anyone to view and use to compile their own copy of Firefox.
Despite the issues we encountered when trying to retrieve Ghostery Privacy Browser's privacy documentation, and despite the app's relatively limited functionality compared to Firefox and Chrome, the company itself has a solid reputation, and the app performed smoothly and intuitively. Unfortunately, its marketing implies an experience that the app did not consistently deliver in our testing.