How to make Firefox more private
The Firefox browser, developed by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation enjoys a positive reputation among privacy enthusiasts as a robust browser that respects your data. The organization’s sales pitch is heavily focused on it, stating at the very beginning that “At Mozilla, we believe that privacy is fundamental to a healthy internet.” It is also worth noting that Mozilla tries very hard to remain neutral and apolitical in order to maintain its stellar reputation. This is in contrast to its main rival, Google (developer of the Google Chrome browser), who seems to be constantly embroiled in privacy and political scandals and has developed a dismal reputation with regards to handling data responsibly.
The great news is that on top of its existing features, Firefox can be adjusted in order to achieve an even greater degree of privacy. Performing a few simple tweaks will improve your experience both online and on your own PC.
Default search provider
After a brief stint with Yahoo, Firefox once again uses Google as its default search engine. Since Google is incredibly invasive, it will do wonders to your privacy to use another, privacy-minded search engine such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage. To change this, go to Menu > Search > Default Search Engine. The alternative options are quite poor as well, so you will need to click on the “Search Engines / Find more search engines” button located below. This will allow you to populate your list with the search engines that you really want.
Note that Firefox will occasionally attempt to change the search engine back to the one that is the most popular in your country, which will more than often be Google once again. Prevent this by visiting Menu > Options > General > Allow Firefox to: and then uncheck the “Automatically update search engines” option.
While you’re tinkering with search engine permissions described above, you’ll also see the automatic update options in a nearby pane. While some believe that turning off automatic updates increases privacy, we must stress that it will also open up your browser to a variety of completely unnecessary hacks and vulnerabilities. We strongly recommend allowing Firefox to update itself automatically.
Since several recent versions, Firefox by default allows itself to track technical interaction data in your browser, going so far as to install and run studies on your device. It’s certainly nice to participate in Firefox’s programs in order to help them test new features and discover how customers use their browser, but let’s face it: any data that routinely leaves your device represents a vulnerability.
Even if it’s anonymous as Firefox claims and just to be safe, we recommend opting out by:
> going to Menu
> Privacy & Security
> Firefox Data Collection and Use and deselecting all the options.
You can also deselect the browser health and crash reports here.
Suggested websites in New Tab
Firefox no longer places advertisements among the suggested websites (sometimes referred to as “Tiles”) that are listed when you open a new tab. However, it will still suggest something, sending plenty of fetch requests, increasing loading times and eating up bandwidth. To disable this and enjoy a plain New Tab, use the wheel icon in the top right part of the screen to deselect the “Show your top sites” and “Show suggested sites” options. This will also protect you from someone physically snooping on your computer and getting a glimpse of what websites you usually visit.
As mentioned above, not all privacy threats are online. Sometimes, protecting yourself against snooping by coworkers, visitors or even family members can be just as important. A simple way to ensure privacy in this regard is to go to Menu > Privacy > History and select “Clear history when Firefox closes” and/or “Always use private browsing mode”. However, be aware that this will make your browsing experience much more annoying as you will be unable to use permanent log-in options, saved passwords, forms and cards as well as previous searches. Many subtle site preferences that you take for granted will turn into drudgery when you’re forced to set them every single time you open the browser and visit them, starting with by getting bombarded by cookie notices all the time.
‘Do not track’ requests
In the past, ‘do not track’ requests used to be quite a strong privacy tool, but today they are ignored by many major companies as tools, starting with the ever-present Google Analytics. In order to actually block this sort of tracking, you will have to use an add-on like Ghostery, uBlockOrigin or AdBlockPlus. Still, for those few websites that still honor such requests, you can set this up by:
> going to Menu
> Privacy & Security
> Tracking Protection
Add-ons and browser fingerprinting
This is a topic that merits its own deep analysis, but the gist is that almost every browser is unique in some way, even if barely tinkered with. The more customized your browser is and the more add-ons you use, the easier it will be to slap you with a unique browser fingerprint tag. This is an internal tracking mechanism that websites use to follow you around the web even without storing any cookies on your device.
Somewhat intimidating at a first glance because of their code-like appearance, config settings provide you with additional tools to modify the way your Firefox browser works. Type about:config into the URL bar in order to access these settings and confirm the warning that appears with “I accept the risk”. The preferences will be listed in alphabetical order and can be browsed by typing their full or partial names into the search bar.
Some of the most important ones to check out are:
network.cookie.cookieBehavior is an integer-based setting that controls what cookies your browser accepts from websites.
It can hold one of the following values:
0 – Accept all cookies by default
1 – Accept cookies only from the originating site (blocks 3rd party cookies)
2 – Block all cookies by default
A reasonably safe setting of 1 will act in a way similar to a cookie-blocking add-on described above.
media.peerconnection.enabled (WebRTC) allows voice and video communication through your browser, which is not a bad thing if you use these. However, just by the virtue that it exists, it can also expose your IP address to snoopers – even if you’re using a VPN! Set it to “false” to prevent this.
media.navigator.enabled allows websites to inquire about and track the status of your device’s camera. Set it to “false” to prevent this.
network.dns.disablePrefetch resolves domain name requests by your browser in a way that improved performance and page load times, but may also be used by hackers to retrieve secret encryption keys from your device’s cache and steal sensitive data. Set it to “true” to prevent this.
While Firefox is no doubt a great browser that provides ample privacy and security, keep in mind that it is not bulletproof. For complete protection, we recommend pairing it with a reputable VPN to conceal your IP address and provide complete anonymity on the Web.