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Mozilla’s privacy-first mobile browser just got a lot easier to use

The Android version gains fine-grained tracking protection to minimize website glitches, while iOS finally gets search suggestions and autocomplete for popular URLs.

Mozilla’s privacy-first mobile browser just got a lot easier to use
[Photo: Tom Sodoge/Unsplash]

Silicon Valley data agreements, Cambridge Analytica-like consultancies, surreptitious location-tracking apps, and just a flood of creepy advertising. You’re not being paranoid about online privacy if they really are out to get you. To keep you safe, Mozilla introduced a special privacy-first version of the Firefox browser, called Focus, for Android and iOS a few years ago. And today it gets significant upgrades–maintaining privacy protections while tuning down the usability compromises they had entailed.

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Firefox Focus comes in a default mode with many privacy features turned up all the way. That includes blocking all trackers: Cookies (small data files) or code-laced ads that phone home with information such as sites you visit or how you navigate around those sites. The aggressive cookie blocking, however, can often cause glitches in how websites load and appear.

Mozilla has added fine-grained controls to limit the problem in its Android version of Focus. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, it couldn’t do the same with the iOS app. But Mozilla adds other fixes that make browsing better on iOS: the ability to enable search suggestions and to autocomplete URLs as you type.

Big Android fixes

Let’s start with the Android upgrades, beginning with a quick refresher on cookies. These small data files, stored in web browsers, perform many useful functions. For instance, they may allow a website to “remember” you and your preferences by writing your username into the cookie, which it can read when you return to the site. But many cookies that a website drops into your browser come from third parties that may use them to store information about where you go around the web. Data brokers and social networks, for instance, can use these cookies to identify you across the web and build profiles on you, allowing, for instance, advertisers to deliver creepily specific offers.

Blocking just third-party tracking cookies is a new option in Focus for Android.

Problem is, Focus originally blocked all these third-party cookies–including ones that don’t facilitate tracking. Pinterest, for example, is a third party that uses cookies to facilitate its clipping service, one that people voluntarily sign up for. Mozilla’s scorched-earth approach to third-party cookies, however, can often cause websites to malfunction. Sites like Facebook or Netflix may not allow people to even log in until they enable cookies.

Mozilla started working on this problem in the “desktop” (PC, Mac, and Linux) versions of Firefox, introducing what it called enhanced tracking protection as an experimental feature in August and adding it as an option in the standard (aka Release) version in October. Now the same capability comes to Android.


Related: If you care about your privacy, try these special versions of Firefox

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Enhanced tracking protection allows the browser to recognize and block just the third-party cookies that communicate with sites known to engage in tracking, based on a list compiled by the privacy app company Disconnect. Other third-party cookies are left alone, reducing the chances of “breaking” a website on the browser. But if there are still problems, you can unblock all cookies on a site-by-site basis, by tapping on the address bar in Focus.

Cookies can be unblocked for individual sites.

Why doesn’t the iOS version get this upgrade? Because Firefox is limited to the capabilities Apple provides. On Android (as well as desktops), Mozilla builds the underlying software, known as the engine, that powers the browser. On iOS, all web-enabled apps have to use Apple’s own engine, called WebKit.

WebKit can block all third-party cookies, so Firefox Focus for iOS enables that feature. But WebKit doesn’t allow the selective blocking that Mozilla’s engine does.

Another promising new feature in the Android web browser is a warning system for sketchy websites. When you type in a URL or click a link, the browser first checks it against a list, maintained by Google, of sites known for devious behavior like phishing scams and planting malware. (Here’s a rather technical explanation of how it works.) Both the Focus and standard version of Firefox for Android get this capability.

This feature being built on a Google service, it’s not surprising that Google’s Chrome browser has been providing unsafe site warnings for some time.

New warnings for dangerous sites in the Android versions of Firefox and Focus.

If a site’s on the list, you’ll get a warning screen providing the option to back away, or proceed at your own risk.

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Related7 digital privacy tools you need to be using now


Upgrades on iOS

Though iOS prevents some upgrades, the Apple version of Focus does get two much-needed features that Android users got back in October. It now offers the option to provide search suggestions. As you start typing, “brad,” for instance, you’ll see a list of popular search terms, like “bradley cooper” and “brad pitt.”

Search suggestions are now an option in the iOS version.

The new version also offers to autocomplete URLs as you begin typing them in. This happens for 450 of the most popular sites, as determined by the web analytics company Alexa (Mozilla filters Alexa’s list to remove sketchy sites.) You can also add autocomplete for any other sites by tapping an option that appears below the address bar.

Autocomplete is enabled for hundreds of sites, and you can enable more while browsing.

Both features can reveal some details of your surfing, but they are also handy time-savers.

Even the latest upgrades don’t protect your data from all the ways that companies and crooks try to spy on you around the web. And Mozilla is already working on more fixes for 2019. But today’s upgrades make guarding your privacy a little less cumbersome.

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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