The Internet isn't exactly the friendliest of skies. Now Aviator, a highly secure and private Web browser already released on OS X, can help pilot Windows users through the perils of malware, tracking cookies and cybercriminals.
In most respects, Aviator for Windows is the same as its previously released Mac counterpart. Developed by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Web security firm WhiteHat Security, the Aviator browser is designed to keep your online activity secure and private by enabling high-security settings as default, and adding a few other features to keep your data out of the wrong hands.
Most Internet users trying out Aviator for the first time will notice two things right away: its speed and its lack of advertisements. The two are connected: Because Aviator blocks all advertisements and third-party cookies, and prevents autoplay of media files by default, pages load much more quickly.
Disabling autoplay of media files also stops certain types of malware in their tracks, especially bogus Adobe Flash files and other malicious code designed to automatically execute or download itself when you visit a given webpage. This also means things such as YouTube videos won't automatically run when you visit a page; instead, you'll have to manually click on every piece of media that you want to activate.
Aviator's default search engine is DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine that doesn't profile its users as do Google Yahoo, Bing and others. That means your results aren't personalized based on your past history: Everyone who searches for a given term will see the same result.
The browser automatically launches in private browsing mode (similar to "Incognito Mode" in Google Chrome or "Private Window" in Firefox), which Aviator calls "Protected Mode." That means that once you close the browser window, all your search history, passwords and other data will be deleted (though it is possible to change these settings). Some users may actually dislike Aviator if they prefer the convenience of having their browsers autocomplete their usernames, passwords and frequently visited URLs.
These features are not unique to Aviator: most can be configured on a browser such as Chrome or Firefox by going into the browser's settings. But the fact that these settings come as the default in Aviator is a distinct advantage, particularly for people who care about privacy but don't want to bother with the technicalities.
Aviator has some other features that you won't see on Chrome or Firefox, however. The browser blocks common tracking software used for online marketing such as Google Analytics, Omniture and DoubleClick, as well as another type of tracking technology called a HTTP referer, which websites use to figure out which sites you were on before you got to your current page.
For example, if site A uses HTTP referers, and you were on site X but then clicked a link to site A, site A now knows that you were previously on site X. It's easy to imagine how you might not want A to know about X, but most browsers still allow http referers.
Aviator is based on Chromium, the open-source browser that Google maintains and uses as the basis for Chrome, although Aviator is not itself open-source. Frequent Chrome users will have little trouble adjusting to Aviator's user interface.
On the Horizon
Right now, WhiteHat is working on addressing bugs with the Windows version of Aviator. Most of them are no more serious than any other launch-window bugs, but there is one notable glitch in the way Aviator accesses its settings menu.
Accessed by pressing the menu button in the upper right side of the browser, the settings page always opens in a new Aviator window, and that window is always in Unprotected Mode. That means that not only will your visit to the Settings page go on your browsing history, but any tabs you open in that same window are also unprotected. (Closing the Settings window by clicking the red X in the upper right will also close Aviator entirely.)
"There's all kinds of little things that aren't really terrible, but also give me heartburn," said Robert Hansen, WhiteHat's director of product management, citing the Settings page issue as a main focus right now. "I know that there's one political dissident who thinks he's using [Aviator] the right way ... I need to make sure that guy is much less likely to be able to screw up."
Hansen also said the company plans to eventually make Aviator's source code open, but won't make the entire browser open-source. That way Aviator could be peer-reviewed, a key step for security software, and individuals could even build their own non-commercial versions, but WhiteHat would still able to eventually license the browser and possibly charge a small amount per download.
Finally, Hansen talked about plans to implement an "anonymous beacon" that would let WhiteHat Security know when someone used the Aviator browser. Hansen stressed that this beacon would be for product-research purposes only and would let WhiteHat know only that a unique user had used Aviator at some point within a week's time.
Even if and when Aviator gets licensed, Hansen stressed WhiteHat's commitment to collecting the bare minimum of user information, saying the license would be the type that doesn't "phone home" to report on users' activity.
"That makes us more vulnerable to pirating, but I would rather users be able to pirate our software [than be insecure]," Hansen said. "I would rather our users be more private than me being able to stop a little bit of fraud."
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.