Windows users can become a lot more invisible to advertisers on the Web, thanks to an update to Mozilla Firefox featuring a tracking-protection measure that’s on by default when you install the browser going forward. This is on a par with what’s offered in Apple’s Safari.
“You’ll get protection from third-party trackers without having to go into settings,” said Firefox senior vice president Dave Camp in a briefing Friday. Unlike Safari, the open-source-based Firefox isn’t confined to Apple’s hardware, running on Windows as well as Linux.
How it works
Like the feature Apple introduced two years ago and then upgraded last year, Firefox’s tracking prevention stops ad networks from identifying your browser by placing cookies – small text files – that they can update through ads they place across the Web. Ad networks use the resulting data about your reading habits to build sophisticated models of your interests that can seem uncanny or just creepy.
Firefox began offering a version of this feature in 2017 but didn’t make it active by default. So only 3% of users turned it on. (If you’ve got Firefox now, Camp noted, you won’t get this new setting active immediately, as part of what he called “our normal engineering rollout.”)
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That old feature also blocked ads from loading if they would have attempted to track users, which resulted in some news sites nagging Firefox users to turn off their ad blockers.
The new version, called Enhanced Tracking Protection, will let the ads through but block their tracking attempts.
Firefox is the second-most-used desktop browser. Both StatCounter and NetMarketShare give it 10% of the market, with the former crediting Google’s Chrome with a 69% share and the latter 66%. The Mac-only Safari has 7% in StatCounter’s data and 4% in NetMarketShare’s, and both surveys show Microsoft’s Edge trailing behind that company’s obsolete Internet Explorer.
Chrome’s privacy protections have lagged badly behind Safari and Firefox. Google made vague announcements about stronger Chrome privacy controls at its I/O developer conference in early May. Even reading those pledges generously, it seems future version of Chrome won’t come preset to block Google’s tracking.
That update to Chrome will, however, match the current release of Safari in blocking “fingerprinting” – a common workaround to tracker blocking in which sites record the finer parameters of visiting browsers to track individual users. Tuesday’s Firefox update will leave a fingerprinting blocker off by default.
“We’ve been working on fingerprinting pretty closely,” Camp said. “Right now, we haven’t found the same sweet spot for turning on by default.”
So will it block Facebook tracking you across the web? This release will leave out a powerful tool to block Facebook’s tracking, Mozilla’s Facebook Container extension. This free add-on locks the social network inside what amounts to a separate virtual browser, at the cost of breaking the Like and Share buttons and Facebook comments at many sites (USA TODAY’s included).
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @robpegoraro. This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Firefox browser blocks sites and advertisers from tracking you online by default
Will news sites suffer a hit in income as a result of tracking protection like the ones on Safari and Firefox? A study released in late May in draft form suggests the answer is no.
Researchers Veronica Marotta of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, Vibhanshu Abhishek of the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, and Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College analyzed “a rich and novel proprietary dataset from a large media company” to see how much more that publisher made from ads placed with tracking cookies. They found only a tiny gain – as in, about 4%.