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Aug 31 2018

Firefox to Offer Integrated Anti-Tracking Feature

Online trackers not only invade one's privacy, they also have a negative impact on the overall 'web experience': A study by browser extension maker Ghostery, published last May, revealed that trackers can massively cut into page load speeds – on a truly overburdened page, the rendering process may eat up more than one minute. Whether at home, at the office or on the go, this can seriously compromise the performance of knowledge workers. Plus, in the age of (mobile) broadband, it seems outright ridiculous.

Ghostery's study – entitled "The Tracker Tax: the impact of third-party trackers on website speed in the United States" – examined the 500 most-visited U.S. websites found in the Alexa ranking and concluded that almost 90% of the pages found in those domains contained at least one tracker; one fifth, or 100 sites, used 50 or more scripts to follow users around the web. By contrast, only about 50 pages were found to be "tracker-free." But while such results may be irritating, they don't exactly come unexpected: After all, tracking mechanisms have been around almost since the dawn of the Internet, and leading browser makers have long integrated (and promoted) functions and/or add-ons that reliably block scripts, erase cookies etc. in order to protect user privacy and boost load speeds.

Although this approach has worked considerably well, it leaves users with a number of insecurities. One, it's not always clear or easy to determine whether (and when) these protective mechanisms will make unwanted exceptions for certain pages/domains, so that the desired effect vanishes into thin air. Two, you never know how long and how well a piece of tracker-blocking software will be maintained or how long it may take before it's been adapted to changes in the underlying browser technology, as could be seen when numerous add-ons took long detours or were simply discontinued after Mozilla launched Firefox 57 aka Firefox Quantum. It might have been this experience that prompted Firefox developers to once again beef up their anti-tracking approach and introduce an integrated blocker that is activated by default. According to a blog post from Mozilla VP Nick Nguyen, the blocker will not only shorten page load times and prevent cross-site tracking – but is also expected to prevent "fingerprinting," a technique that identifies users based on device properties. At least some of these tracking methods have garnered a rather dubious reputation as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that shook the IT world and the political sphere last spring.

Adventurous users can test the new integrated default tracker blocker with the latest editions of Firefox Nightly. The feature may be enabled via the Control Center menu, which pops up when you click on the small "i" in the address/search bar. Another click on "Content Blocking" takes you to a preferences panel, where you can customize tracker blocker settings. But be careful: the most radical option ("always block all detected trackers") may cause some sites to break or become inaccessible. If the tests are successful, the protective functions will gradually be added to the stable version, starting this October.


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