Firefox Develops a Case of Selective Amnesia

digital security

Roughly 10 years to the day after the release of Firefox 1.0, Mozilla on Monday announced an updated version of its open-source browser, complete with a new Forget button aimed at protecting users’ privacy.

“Forget gives you an easy way to tell Firefox to clear out some of your recent activity,” explained Firefox Vice President Johnathan Nightingale. “Instead of asking a lot of complex technical questions, Forget asks you only one: How much do you want to forget? Once you tell Firefox you want to forget the last five minutes, or two hours, or 24 hours, it takes care of the rest.”

Also new in version 33.1 of Firefox is the inclusion of DuckDuckGo as a pre-installed search option. DuckDuckGo is best known for delivering search results without tracking users or what they search for.

Mozilla on Monday released a brand-new version of Firefox tailored for developers as well.

Off the Record

“I think the Forget button is tremendously important,” John Simpson, privacy project director with Consumer Watchdog, told LinuxInsider.

“Many users share computers and don’t want a list of the websites they’ve visited available to others,” Simpson explained. “This lets users easily erase the record.”

As for DuckDuckGo, it’s “the search engine to use if you don’t want the search engine to profile you,” Simpson said. “It’s an excellent, privacy-friendly addition to the search engines featured in the toolbar.”

Working With Tor

Also, as part of Mozilla’s Monday suite of anniversary announcements, the nonprofit kicked off Polaris, a new privacy initiative that it’s undertaking in partnership with the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Tor Project.

As part of Polaris, Mozilla launched two experiments. In one, Mozilla engineers are evaluating the Tor Project’s changes to Firefox so as to determine if changes to Mozilla’s code base could enable Tor to work more quickly and easily.

Mozilla will soon begin hosting its own high-capacity Tor middle relays to make Tor’s network more responsive and allow Tor to serve more users.

In the second Polaris experiment, Mozilla aims to explore how Firefox can offer a feature that protects users who want to avoid invasive tracking without penalizing advertisers and content sites that respect a user’s preferences.

A Strong Need

“I think Mozilla is dealing with an important specific need — a need that is probably quite strong amongst the type of user that uses Firefox,” said Al Hilwa, program director for software development research with IDC.

“The use of DuckDuckGo is a great new addition because that search engine promises not to retain data about user identity,” Hilwa told LinuxInsider.

“The Forget feature simplifies a complex task usually provided to users through multiple checkpoints in terms of different types of content and cookies to erase,” he noted.

“Mozilla should be commended for adding these features,” Hilwa said. “Users should not have to understand deep browser architecture to figure out how to stop websites from tracking them.”

A False Sense of Privacy?

It is “great to see that Mozilla is making progress when it comes to simplifying user interfaces for privacy features,” observed Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

At the same time, “I’m concerned that features like this might lead people into a false sense of privacy,” Gillula told LinuxInsider. “After all, the Forget button can’t erase the logs a Web server has of your visits or any data that a malicious third party might have intercepted while you were browsing.”

So, “as long as users understand the limits of this sort of feature, it’s great,” he concluded, “but we need to make sure people really understand those limits.”

Not a Needle-Mover

Firefox’s heightened privacy focus is unlikely to have a major effect on its market standing, Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights for the Local Search Association, told LinuxInsider,

“Firefox has lost share to Chrome, now the world’s No. 1 browser,” Sterling noted. “This appears to be a bid to partly differentiate on the basis of privacy.”

Giving people additional choice and control over their browsing history is “a good idea and will be appealing to many,” Sterling concluded, “though it probably won’t significantly impact the market share figures.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

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