Episode #46: An Old Dog Learns Some New Tricks
How the Firefox Browser Became & Remains a Go-To Choice for Privacy Advocates
Paid subscribers got access to Episode #45, detailing how to better protect and secure our personal health data. We explored how interacting with our doctors, our smartphones and smartwatches, and with new technology like DNA tests require a careful eye towards guarding which information we can - or even should - provide
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In The Beginning…
For those that came of age during the tech boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, the name Firefox is very familiar. That old, familiar web browser - born back in 2002 - is like a comfy, old blanket that many of us used in our Internet “childhood”. Back in those early days, many of us surfed the web using Netscape and Firefox, before moving on to other browsers like Internet Explorer, Safari, and Chrome.
But in the two decades since Firefox was born, there are all kinds of new ways to track people on the Internet using all kinds of new technology that wasn’t present or widespread in the early days of the Internet.
The landscape has changed; fortunately, Firefox has changed with it.
Let’s start our tour with the company that makes and financially supports Firefox.
The Mozilla Foundation
Since 2002, Firefox has been maintained by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. The foundation is notable for its commitment to online privacy and transparency. It earns money by collecting donations, NOT by collecting and selling your data as is the case with Google Chrome.
Not only does the foundation feature this privacy notice on their website, but they also have a complete, easy-to-read set of privacy policies to boot. They’ve even published a “manifesto” that presents their core ideas around the freedoms and openness of the Internet that they support.
Cool: we can all dig that.
More importantly, The Mozilla Foundation historically makes every attempt to ensure that Firefox is better than every other browser at protecting users’ privacy. So sure are they of this claim, that Mozilla provides a simple comparison chart so users can make an informed decision on their own.
Always a good sign. But let’s see if that claim holds up.
The gold standard for ANY piece of software is whether or not it is “open-source”. For those of you who do not know what "open-source” means, here’s an easy definition: when software is open-source, all of the code is made publicly available for others to inspect. This allows for (and encourages) the help of a larger community of programmers and technical experts to make software better and more secure. Think about it: if more people can inspect your code, then you have a better chance to identify and fix problems, ultimately improving the final product.
As a result, open-source software is generally considered much safer and certainly more transparent than private software. It’s also easy to copy, or “fork”. This is why the famously secure (and very slow) TOR web browser and the new Waterfox web browser are both built on Mozilla’s code!
All The Expected Functions We Need
Firefox has everything you’ll need for a functional web browser:
A usable bookmarks manager for those sites you’d like to save
Integrated search in the URL bar
The ability to choose & use the search engine of your choice
The ability to add browser extensions
The ability to customize the look/feel with browser “themes”
The ability to search your bookmarks in the search bar (nice!)
The ability to sync your Firefox settings across various computers and smartphones
All of these browser features are really nice to have for when you need them. However, I’ll be explaining why you should NOT use all of Firefox’s features, in a bit, mmmkay?
Firefox’s Security Preferences
Like most applications, you can easily access Firefox’s main preferences. To do so, click on the “hamburger” icon at top left in the application window and select “Settings” from the drop-down menu as shown here in Firefox v.90.0.2:
When you do, you’ll come to a screen that shows you all of the various and “normal” preferences that you’d find in any browser, broken down into four simple categories: general, home, search, privacy & security, and sync. This makes it easy and simple to configure Firefox in a way that maximizes your privacy, security, and speed.
For general users, the preferences that Firefox offers in these five categories are more than enough to create a safe, secure, and customized web browsing experience.
Only, you aren’t a general user: you’re a user who cares far more about privacy and security than others.
Thankfully, Firefox is here to help.
What sets Firefox apart from Chrome, Opera, Edge, Brave, and certainly Safari is the ability it gives to users to dig deep into the application’s preferences to change a bunch of really cool shit.
“What cool shit is that?” you ask. Read on.
Finding & Using the Advanced Preferences
In your browser URL bar, type about:config and then press return. Surprise! You’ll be met with a screen with a “caution” graphic, a search bar and a button saying “Show All”.
Click the “Show All” button and you’ll be shocked with a massive list of preferences that are embedded in Firefox:
For those who spend time in UNIX, Python, and other languages, you’ll probably recognize that these preferences are just a nice way to graphically display the applications XML plists.
For those of you non-programmers who have no %$!*^&? idea what I just wrote, I’ll translate: all applications have preferences. Those preferences are presented graphically but they are ALSO accessible via programming languages so programmers can make changes to many computers all at once. Useful if you manage, say, 4,000 computers at a company with certain security protocols.
The challenge here is that most of you (and I’m one of you!) will have NO idea what any of these 2 million Firefox preferences do or control as there’s no explanation given on these advanced pages.
Now is a really good time for me to introduce all of you to one of my favorite online privacy and security advocacy groups: PrivacyTools.
PrivacyTools is a community of smart, transparent, and hard-working security professionals, who open-source all of their discussions and abide by a code of conduct. These folks work for free on behalf of the entire Internet to help all of us protect our privacy.
Here is the page which links to PrivacyTool’s breakdown on how (and why!) to tweak Firefox’s about:config settings to maximize your privacy.
When you’ve downloaded Firefox, applied these changes, and restarted the application, read on.
When and Why to Use Firefox
So, now you’ve got yourself a fast, modern, and secure web browser. Let’s jump in and start browsing, right?
Most of us think it’s normal to use our favorite web browser for everything. Which is unusual, if you think about it, in comparison to something we also use every day: shoes.
We change our shoes multiple times during the day to suit our circumstances: slippers for bedtime, dress shoes for work, sandals for the beach, and work shoes for the garden.
Different circumstances call for different shoes. We know this. It’s normal.
But, somehow, most of us don’t apply the same logic to our Internet browsing. We should. Different kinds of browsing require different kinds of security and privacy. Here’s a personal example:
I’m FAR more sensitive regarding the tech that I use when I log into my bank, my medical records, or my investments.
I’m much less sensitive when I’m checking the score of the last Phillies game (they’re in first place in the NL East as of this episode, if you’re asking…)
Your security and privacy protocols might be the same as mine or they might be different. What’s important is that you start to think of your online security like you do with shoes: different situations call for a different approach.
Carefully guard matters of top importance to you: this is - most likely - your medical, legal, financial, professional, and personal information. Use the strongest security/privacy measures that you have available to you:
Download and use a top tier browser like Firefox. Then set it with the strongest possible privacy settings as we’ve described here.
Install and use the key browser extensions recommended by PrivacyTools. Doing so will increase your security and privacy while browsing on Firefox.
Use a different email address when creating an account for each website. To do this, use a free service like 33mail to make those email addresses easy-to-remember and auto-forward to your personal email account.
Use unique, long, and complex passwords for each website. To do this, use a free, open-source password manager like BitWarden to manage your passwords
Use a VPN whenever possible to block your ISP from overseeing or logging which websites you visit.
Paid Browsers: Top Security Could Be Worth the Investment
One solution worth mentioning for those with extreme security needs: paid browsers. Some browsers, by design, help isolate how users browse online creating a safer browsing experience. Here are a few of my top recommendations:
Silo, by Authentic8: Normally, when we browse, we open an app on our computer or mobile device and log onto the Internet. By comparison, Silo is a “cloud browser”. That means you go online and LOG INTO the secure Silo web browsing environment. What you’re logging into is a virtual environment. Because of that fact, the environment is 100% isolated from you, something which has powerful advantages:
Malware any viruses can’t be “downloaded” to your computer but, instead, land in Silo’s secure environment. No harm, no damage, no spread.
You are far more anonymous. Websites have trackers and other piece of code which are created to sense your IP address, geographical location and other key pieces of personal information. But when you surf from within a secure environment, all of that information is masked.
Business owners can centralize and automate how their employees access and use the Internet, enforcing safety and privacy protocols no matter how educated staff might be.
Puffin Browser: while the Silo product line is used by governments and other organizations around the world, the Puffin line of products is more geared to the individual user. At $12/year or $2/month, the browser is reasonably priced and - like Silo - provides users with a secure browsing experience. Users are essentially watching websites load into a secure environment instead of on their own machine. This, again, makes you far safer, secure and private.
The desktop browser is slower however and far less customizable than Firefox, Brave, or any other modern browser. But again: you’re not paying for speed or customization with Puffin: you’re paying for safety.
Speaking of pay: Puffin’s mobile device browser (available for both iOS and Android) has two flavors. One is free, and supported ads; the other is paid at $5.00. Whether you pay for the mobile browser or not, the Puffin mobile web browser is faster and more customizable than its desktop counterpart. It even comes with a built-in joystick for mobile gamers.
Whether you choose an open-source, free, and customizable web browser like Firefox or paid solutions like Silo or Puffin which offer secure, virtualized Internet access is a matter of personal choice, ability, and needs.
Not all solutions work for all users. Just keep in mind that not all websites will function the same way - or at all - with some secure browsers. You might need to change your web browser privacy or security settings (or switch web browsers entirely) to properly view some websites. That happens. It’s a thing. Expect it and be strategic about it when it does happen.
If you need to use a less secure web browser to make a payment or whare critical information, perhaps make a phone call or send a letter via post instead.
Designing your secure solution will require planning, testing, and determining what fits your needs. Take advice from other with a grain of salt and do your own research to confirm your suspicions. There’s never a substitute for that.
Next episode: Apple’s recent photo scanning scandal. Should be a good one if you’re a paid subscriber. For those who have NOT yet become paid subscribers, I invite you to do so now.
Thank you and, as always…
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