It’s not paranoia: You are being followed. Marketers are embedding dozens of trackers per website to follow your online wanderings and build up ad-targeting profiles. While the dominant browser, Google Chrome, takes a timid approach to these trackers, Apple and now Mozilla are attacking them head on.
Firefox first started blocking all trackers by default in its experimental browsers in July and in a wide release in September. Since then, Firefox has blocked 450 billion tracking attempts, says Selena Deckelmann, the senior director of Firefox browser engineering at Mozilla. That comes out to 175 trackers per Firefox browser per day.
“I’m a specialist in privacy on the web, and it still was pretty shocking to see those numbers all added up,” she says.
Now, users will have yet another tool to help them understand the ways that marketers follow them around online. Today, Mozilla is rolling out a new version of Firefox, called Release 70, with a Privacy Protections dashboard screen in your settings that helps explain how those billions of trackers work—and what Firefox is doing about them. The new upgrades fit into the mission of making privacy and security easier to understand and act upon for the majority of us who don’t geek out on the subject, Deckelmann says. It’s yet another reason to consider a switch to Firefox if you haven’t already.
So-called third-party cookies are perhaps the best known trackers. The small files reside in your browser and report back to marketers the sites you visit. Other Firefox-blocked trackers use code in online ads and code in those social media “share” buttons on web pages to record your visits to them. Also blocked are cryptominers—hidden scripts that hackers use to commandeer your computer to generate cryptocurrency, like bitcoin.
With Firefox 70, you can look under the hood to see how it blocks all these trackers, in real time. When I visited FoxNews.com, for instance, Firefox reported finding 64 cookies and six social media trackers. It found 43 cookies and three social media trackers on FastCompany.com.
You can access this information by clicking a purple shield icon on the left side of the browser’s URL address bar, which launched a pop-up summary window. From there, I could click through to see a list of the particular trackers on that page, or click to access the Privacy Protections dashboard. The latter provides an overview of all the trackers that Firefox has blocked over the past week, broken down by tracker type.
Privacy and security, now by default
Mozilla didn’t invent all of these capabilities. Privacy-savvy surfers have long been able to download anti-tracking plug-ins—for Firefox and other browsers like Chrome—that do similar tracker blocking, such as Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
“Most people, they’re not going to take that step of installing an add-on that would protect their privacy,” says Deckelmann. “Some people do, and we think that’s great. But for everyone else, we think that they deserve privacy, too.”
“The fact that it’s moving toward built-in/on by default is super cool,” says Gennie Gebart, a consumer privacy and security researcher at EFF, in an email to me.
Firefox’s much bigger rival, Google Chrome, has been a lot less aggressive in blocking trackers, says Gebart. In August, it came out against the third-party cookie blocking that both Firefox and Apple Safari have been developing. (Apple pioneered the practice.) Google, after all, is the largest digital advertising platform in the world.
Google’s argument is that blocking cookies will encourage marketers to devise more insidious ways of tracking users. One method, called fingerprinting, collects the specific settings you’ve set on your computer and web browser, such as the plug-ins installed, to develop a unique identifier. Firefox 70 provides the option to turn on fingerprinting blocking. (It’s not on by default, Deckelmann says, because it could prevent some sites from working properly.) Safari started blocking fingerprinting back in 2018.
Firefox 70 brings front and center another feature that has been hidden or hard to find in the past: Mozilla’s security-breach monitoring service, called Firefox Monitor. It was introduced back in 2018 with a website where users enter their email addresses. The site periodically checks them against a list of emails spilled in data breaches through a partnership with a nonprofit monitoring service called Have I Been Pwned?. Now users can see a summary of breach alerts right in the Privacy Protections dashboard.
Are you feeling overwhelmed by all the intricacies of security tech? That’s exactly what Mozilla (and Apple) are trying to address by enabling more protection measures by default. And with Firefox’s new Privacy Protections dashboard, Mozilla is trying to make those technologies easier to understand for those who want to learn more—and protect users regardless, even if they don’t.