Greg Tyler

Maintain your online privacy with Firefox Focus

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I’m really interested in online privacy. I imagine friends would describe me from “helpful” to “privacy nut”, but it’s something that’s important to me. I’m often just caught moaning about privacy though, not doing anything about it. I do my best when it comes to system design, sure, but I think I can fail a bit on the education side of things.

To that end, I want to talk more about the tools and techniques I use to help keep private online. It’s not foolproof, and there’s no one easy solution, but if it’s something you care about I can suggest practical steps that help maintain privacy without sacrificing comfort.

Firefox Focus

So I want to call out Firefox Focus, a mobile web browser made by Mozilla with privacy in mind. Firefox Focus has a whole bunch of privacy-focused features, but I want to pull out the two which I think are key to what it does for me.

Firstly, it blocks third party trackers. These are the tools used to track you across different websites, so when you visit Company A and Company B, the third party tracker can tie those visits together and learn something about you. When third party trackers watch you over many months, the data they build up can get really personal. Whilst not everyone’s using this for nefarious purposes, there are some well established weaponised trackers out there and blocking them is just good hygiene.

The second major feature is that Firefox Focus erases all your history at the end of a session. All the cache, all pageview history, all cookies. This is also designed to make you harder to track: when you close a session and come back to the same site, you look like a completely new visitor.

Erasing history has its annoyances: you have to re-login to websites in each session, and reselect your cookie preferences (which really makes you notice how crap they are) but that is where the question of how much comfort you’re willing to sacrifice comes in. Because of that, I recommend having two browsers: one you use for accessing trusted sites that you want to stay logged in to, and Firefox Focus for your everyday browsing. That way you can get on with your regular life, but be a little more protected when you do regular browsing and visit sites you don’t trust.

One other thing to note about Firefox Focus is that not all sites work with it. Normally this is because they require third party cookies to function. Generally, that’s a wild expectation and you probably shouldn’t use the site for fears over how it handled your data, but if you must then that’s where your second browser comes in.

My setup

To quickly summarise, my mobile browser set up is this: Firefox Focus as my day-to-day and default browser. I use it for things like accessing news sites, looking up recipes and searching for info. It’s the most used so on my phone and probably accounts for >95% of my mobile web browsing. Then I’ve got (regular) Firefox for when I need it: accessing GitHub and Google Suite for work, and websites which Firefox Focus can’t support.

I’ve been using this setup for a couple of years and I find it great. The only annoyance is constantly dealing with cookie popups, but I often just accept them because Firefox Focus (and other tools) are protecting me from the harmful cookies anyway.