Privacy-minded Firefox users who are tired of websites keeping tabs on their browsing habits should keep their eyes peeled for the Firefox 57 update, also known as Quantum, due out 14 November.
This next major update is expected to include an option to turn on Tracking Protection, which—as the name implies—protects you from tracking. Specifically, it stops sites from loading code that can be used to track you across multiple websites:
Firefox will ship with a list of sites which have been identified as engaging in cross-site tracking of users. When tracking protection is enabled, Firefox will block content from sites in the list.
These scripts are often used by advertisers and website owners who want to gather as much information on their visitors’ demographics and browsing habits as they can, usually to serve up targeted advertisements or to tweak their website’s content.
Although the Firefox bug tracker indicates that the new Tracking Protection option will make its debut in version 57 it isn’t in the version 57 beta, although it is visible in the browser’s nightly builds.
The nightly build shows that the Tracking Protection option is still only applied to private windows by default but can, for the first time, be enabled for all browsing by going to Preferences > Privacy & Security > Tracking Protection, and clicking Always.
Users can make themselves even more stealthy by clicking Change Block List… and choosing the strict protection list instead of the standard basic protection list.
Not everyone wants their information and web habits tracked so closely, by an ever-increasing number of websites, so those that have the tech-savvy have leaned on third-party fixes: browser extensions that block scripts or ads, or custom browser builds that have adblockers built-in.
Adblockers, and particularly script blockers like NoScript, can be a blunt solution though and as they’ve become more popular we’ve also seen an increase in websites trying to outwit them, or nagging users to put up with ads or pay up.
The default Tracking Protection list, basic protection, is Firefox’s attempt to be more scalpel than cudgel: it disables only known tracker scripts, not all scripts (including many that can be core to how contemporary websites function), and “allows some known content trackers to reduce website breakage”.
Likely though users will use Tracking Protection in conjunction with their existing ad blocker, not instead of it.
Blocking ads and tracking scripts from third parties has the added benefit for users of protecting them from malvertising (ads or scripts hijacked to deliver malicious content), as well as stopping plain old annoying banner ads.
And because ads and tracking scripts take time to download and run, blocking them can also boost performance, something Mozilla, makers of Firefox, are happy to talk up:
Since Firefox does not download and render content from tracking domains, Tracking Protection also enjoys performance benefits of a 44% median reduction in page load time and 39% reduction in data usage in the Alexa top 200 news sites.
Previously, Firefox users who wanted to enjoy the privacy, protection and performance improvements of the Tracking Protection capability could only do so within Private Browsing mode.
Private Browsing disables a number of features that some users might want to keep, like stored site logins or preferences, and that can put people off from using it for day-to-day browsing.
With the Firefox 57 update, Mozilla unboxes a popular privacy-centric feature that was previously confined to Private Browsing and brings it a step closer to normal browsing (provided your remember to turn it on).