One of the major themes in Firefox 3.5’s user interface is a focus on privacy. So far Firefox’s approach to privacy has been essentially all or nothing. Users previously had the ability to easily clear all of the data the browser had stored about them, but this destroyed absolutely everything. Instead of being able to go off the record, this was kind of like shooting the reporter. Now users have considerably more control over their privacy, both proactively and retroactively.
There are 5 new privacy features introduced to Firefox with the 3.5 release. Here is a description of how each one works:
Tools > Private Browsing (Proactive Privacy)
If you would like to browse the Web without Firefox recording history, Private Browsing allows you to quickly launch a browsing session that will be completely off the record:
After launching into private browsing mode, you receive a confirmation explaining that Firefox isn’t going to remember anything:
It’s great to get private browsing mode into a shipping copy of Firefox, since private browsing mode was previously both targeted and canceled for Firefox 3 (and in the interim it was added to IE and Chrome, which is really great for users). Private browsing mode actually has a long history of not quite making it into a final release, way back in 2002 Blake and Asa prototyped it for Netscape. We all owe a huge thanks to Ehsan Akhgari who worked incredibly hard to get the feature fully implemented.
Tools > Clear Recent History (Retroactive Privacy)
Let’s say that you’ve been browsing around the Web for awhile, perhaps shopping for an engagement ring, or researching a medical condition, and you realize that you really should have been in private browsing mode. The Clear Recent History feature is kind of like Private Browsing, except it works in reverse. (All good interfaces support undo!)
After selecting Clear Recent History, you will be asked what time period you would like to erase:
If you expand details you can see the somewhat arcane list of things being removed, but the short version is that “history” refers to everything that is implicitly collected by Firefox as you browse the Web (and we really mean everything). You can also use this dialog to max out the time range and effectively reset Firefox, similar to the old dialog.
Thanks go to Drew Willcoxon, Shawn Wilsher and Johnathan Nightingale for implementing this feature.
History > Forget about this Site (Retroactive Privacy)
If you don’t want to clear a specific time range but would rather selectively delete items out of your history, Firefox now offers the ability to remove all of the history of a particular Web site. For instance you can select this article in your history (either through the Library window, or the History Sidebar), and then use “Forget About this Site” to remove every visit to blog.mozilla.org.
This is a bit more powerful than deleting individual visits if you are interested in pruning your history. This feature was implemented by Shawn Wilsher.
Simplified Privacy Options (Proactive Privacy)
We’ve also significantly simplified Firefox’s privacy options. By default Firefox will remember where you go on the Web:
However, if you are extremely privacy conscious, or you are setting up a computer that will be in a public location and used by many different people, like a hotel lobby or a computer lab, you can now very easily set Firefox to never remember history. This is basically the same thing as always running Firefox in private browsing mode, except that the mode is always on.
Of course if you have previously changed your history settings, or are interested in micromanaging exactly what Firefox will and will not store as you browse the Web, the full range of settings are still available:
This feature was implemented by Ehsan Akhgari.
Ability to Control What Appears in the Location Bar Search Results (Proactive Privacy)
When we expanded the capabilities of the location bar to search against all history and bookmarks in Firefox 3, a lot of people contacted us to say that they had certain bookmarks they didn’t really want to have displayed. In some cases users had intentionally hidden these bookmarks in deep hierarchies of folders, somewhat similar to how one might hide a physical object. Having something from your previous browsing displayed to someone else who is using your computer (or even worse) to a large audience of people as you are giving a presentation, is really one of the most embarassing things that Firefox can to do you. So now in Firefox 3.5, users have complete control over what types of information are displayed in the location bar (or suggestions can be turned off entirely):
This feature was implemented by Ed Lee and Dietrich Ayala.
Even More Control!
But what if the five privacy tools described above still aren’t enough? You want to be able to save both bookmarks and history, but in a way that only you can access the information.
The most direct way to do this is to create a new user account in the operating system you are using, and to give it a password. Firefox will create a separate profile for that user, and you can use this new profile to store bookmarks and history.
Alternatively, you can launch Firefox and display the profile manager. This is a feature that is intentionally hidden from the normal Firefox UI, since it is a bit more complicated than creating a new user account in your operating system, and is more commonly used by developers who are testing Firefox. Instructions for accessing Firefox’s profile manager vary by operating system, but we have a detailed article explaining the feature.
The third, and perhaps most extreme way to keep your bookmarks and history private, is to use something called Portable Firefox. This allows you to put both Firefox and your profile onto a USB thumb drive. You can then place the thumb drive into a physical box, and literally lock it, bury it, etc.
While Firefox’s profile manager is currently more of a tool designed for developers, with emerging tools like Mozilla Lab’s Weave, users may soon be logging into their Web browsers to access all of their personal information. The great thing about this is that similar to Web mail and other online services, users can create multiple accounts. Also (unlike Web mail and most other online services) Mozilla Lab’s Weave encrypts all of your information, so you can be assured that you are the only one who has the ability to access it.
Firefox takes your privacy incredibly seriously, and we hope that you enjoy using all of the great new features we’ve added in Firefox 3.5, which is available for download starting today!