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Private I: Firefox and others deal with unwanted trackers, whether ads or malicious

Glenn Fleishman | July 10, 2015
You'd think checking a box labeled Do Not Track would indicate a strong preference for, you know: not being tracked. And yet that is not the case. Those who sell slots to advertisers or gather demographic and other personal data to associate with individuals and improve targeting have a desperate interest in following our every move online.

Some people simply don't want to see ads, and those who feel that way aren't valuable lost revenue, because they're not going to click on things or use calls to action, anyway. But I suspect that many people just don't want to be tracked all the time and have ads creepily targeted to them. For that group, blocking malicious sites and blocking bad actors--services that aren't engaged in ethical tracking--would likely be enough.

Less tracking, more speed

Firefox's Tracking Protection earned some attention in May when two researchers--one then working at Firefox's maker, Mozilla--released a paper about the feature, which was rolled into the browser, but not enabled nor presented as a choice in the main preferences interface. (To turn it on, type about:config in a Firefox location bar, and then search for trackingprotection. Double-click to set privacy.trackingprotection.enabled to true.)

Tracking Protection is not an ad blocker; it's not about whether a site is presenting commercial information to you at all. Rather, it's an unsafe-connection blocker. The developers used the software behind Google's Safe Browsing service, which manages a list of URLs to warn surfers about, and took about 1,500 domains from the Disconnect privacy-oriented service's list of bad players. The list is updated every 45 minutes. (Safe Browsing from Google is intended to avoid malware and phishing, while Disconnect focuses on insecure connections that carry private information and "malicious trackers, sources of malware, and identity theft.")

The paper showed not just the quantity of connections to services identified in this fashion, but also how much faster webpages load without pulling in seemingly unwanted or openly dangerous trackers. The speed is what attracted attention.

In my testing over the last few weeks, Firefox in OS X is definitely zippier, but I've also had to disable Tracking Protection for specific sites, especially for use with Facebook logins from other sites. You can use a pop-down menu in the toolbar to disable protection on individual sites. For the most part, most sites work just fine.

As Ed Bott noted weeks ago, however, the feature appears destined to sputter out, as the Mozilla developer, Monica Chew, has left and posted a fairly dismissive blog post about what the future of Mozilla's interest in the area might be. (Ed also noted that Microsoft has had such a tracking blocklist in Internet Explorer since 2011, which is sadly not of use for us on iOS or in OS X. Maybe Microsoft should restart IE for Mac?)

Alternatives to Tracking Protection

I like Tracking Protection because of its integration and seemingly light hand in what it does. But Disconnect (which helped provided the blocklist for the feature), Ghostery, and others offer similar or better features. Ghostery, for instance, shows you a count of how many tracking elements on a site when the page loads, and lets you block whichever you like. Ghostery is focused on privacy, not malice. Disconnect has its feet on both pedestals.


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