Privacy Proponents Rally In Favor of Tracking Protection in Firefox

Privacy advocates are calling on Mozilla to better deploy Tracking Protection, a technology that offers more stringent privacy and speeds up page loads by blocking requests to tracking domains, in its Firefox browser.

Privacy advocates are calling on Mozilla to better deploy Tracking Protection, a technology that offers more stringent privacy and speeds up page loads by blocking requests to tracking domains, in its Firefox browser.

The functionality has existed in the browser for months but the idea of making it a more prominent feature began to pick up steam a week and a half ago at Web 2.0, a one day workshop held in conjunction with the IEEE’s Symposium on Security and Privacy, in San Jose, Calif. A paper written by Monica Chew, a former Mozilla software engineer, and Georgios Kontaxis, a computer science student at Columbia University who previously interned at Mozilla, won best paper at the conference, and support for the initiative has slowly bubbled up since then.

The paper, “Tracking Protection in Firefox For Privacy and Performance,” (.PDF) was Chew’s last project with Firefox before leaving the company at the beginning of April, and demonstrates how better implementing the feature could not only result in better privacy, but a better user experience overall.

Tracking Protection, prevents any network communication between the browser and unsafe third-party origins. The feature, which borrows elements from Disconnect, including its blocklist of known tracking domains, has been available in Firefox since January but is currently optional. If enabled, Chew and Kontaxis found that it could result in a fairly drastic reduction in the number of cookies being set and faster page load times.

For their research the two turned on Tracking Protection, combed through Alexa’s top 200 news sites and found 67.5 percent fewer HTTP cookies being set. Chew and Kontaxis also experienced a 44 percent median reduction in page load time and a 39 percent reduction in data usage, something the two directly attribute to the feature not having to take time to download and render content.

For one instance, Chew and Kontaxis found that a site like loaded in 3.5 seconds with Tracking Protection versus 6.3 without it. The site also only triggered 2.8 MB of data usage with the feature, compared to 4.3 MB without.

Chew and Kontaxis make a lot of points in the paper but chief among them is that the Internet’s revenue model has become muddied by “misaligned incentives between users, advertisers, and content providers,” something that’s ultimately resulted in what the dub “a race to the bottom.”

Officials at the Electronic Frontier Foundation echoed Chew’s sentiments on Tuesday, agreeing that Firefox developers should enable Tracking Protection and make the functionality easier to use — even if it’s just for users who have enabled Private Browsing mode.

As it stands currently, Tracking Protection is off by default and buried deep in the browser’s settings. Users have to jump through a series of proverbial hoops and ladders, including making changes through Firefox’s about:config section and bypassing a warning to turn it on.

The EFF points out the feature isn’t scheduled to be offered to Firefox beta users to testing and improvement anytime soon, and that while Apple and Microsoft include at least some form of anti-tracking technology in their browsers, Firefox and Chrome have lagged behind.

“We eagerly await the day that advertisers respect user’s requests for privacy and for browsers to implement their protections by default,” Noah Swartz, a staff technologist for the EFF’s Tech Projects team, wrote Tuesday.

In the meantime the EFF is again encouraging users to install its Privacy Badger add-on. The extension, which the digital rights group released last summer, blocks many silent forms of tracking, requires no configuration, and is available for both Firefox and Chrome.

After their presentation at Web 2.0, Chew wrote in her personal blog and reflected on her work and the forces at odds between advertising and security, claiming it will take a “major force to disrupt this ecosystem,” but that she hopes her former employer can be that force.

“I believe that Mozilla can make progress in privacy, but leadership needs to recognize that current advertising practices that enable ‘free’ content are in direct conflict with security, privacy, stability, and performance concerns – and that Firefox is first and foremost a user-agent, not an industry-agent.”


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