Browser

Firefox plays Chrome catch-up, or does it?

Firefox has been feature "one-upped" by a brand new browser. With the release of Chrome comes the onslaught of stealth-mode browsers, and Firefox is the last in line to release this feature. Jack Wallen wonders if Firefox dropped the ball.

Chrome hasn't been out for even a month and already features are starting to creep into the road maps of other browsers.

I have to admit I installed Chrome (in order to create some Techrepublic content for it) and kicked the tires. And even more so I have to admit I was impressed with the beta offering from Google. It had a lot of issues (primarily that of CPU/Memory consumption), but it also had a lot of really great features. One feature, Incognito, really piqued my interest. This browsing mode basically didn't leave a trace of your browsing. Naturally the computing world latched onto this, and now Firefox is planning on adding a Privacy Mode to the 3.1 release.

What really surprised me about this was when I discovered that Firefox is the last of all the major browsers to have a privacy mode. This took me off guard because, well, this is a feature that speaks to geeks in their native tongue...privacy. So why did it take so long? For a browser that claims to lead the pack on features, how could they overlook something like this? It turns out the privacy mode was supposed to be included in version 3.0 but it just didn't make the final cut when all was said and done. Safari has enjoyed a privacy mode since as early as June 2007. Chrome followed suit on its beta release in September 2008. Internet explorer will release IE8 beta 2 with a privacy mode. And then along comes Firefox.

I've always bragged about how Firefox is always ahead of the curve when it comes to features. But this time it's behind. Of course that doesn't mean that the Firefox privacy mode won't win a game of "anything you can do, I can do better" with the other browsers. In fact, look at the proposed privacy mode features:

  • Discard all cookies acquired during the private session.
  • Not record sites visited to the browser's history.
  • Not auto-fill passwords, and not prompt the user to save passwords.
  • Remove all downloads done during the session from the browser's download manager.

That list pretty much follows in the tracks of the others. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing that says, "Firefox one-upped the competition yet again."

But I guess we can't always expect Firefox to stay ahead of the curve. There are going to be moments when our favorite open source browser gets caught with its proverbial pants down. And I supposed we should just be happy that this feature is finally going to arrive. Now Firefox users won't have to worry so much when browsing on a public machine...so long as those administering the public browsers allow privacy mode to be active.

Ultimately though I am wondering why Firefox was caught lagging behind with this particular feature. As I said, the dev team wanted this feature in 3.0 but during a meeting on January 23, 2008, they realized there were too many major bugs that had to be dealt with before adding a new feature. This was probably smart. Instead of taking the Microsoft route of tossing in new features before the old features were solid, Firefox opted for the high road.

Of course, in the true open source fashion, there are ways. Take for instance the Stealther extension for Firefox. This extension adds some of the privacy features that the privacy mode will add. And this extension came to life September 29th, 2005. So maybe Firefox wasn't as far behind as I initially thought. Maybe, just maybe, the whole privacy mode browsing was born (from the other browsers) from this one extension that has been bringing a modicum of privacy to Firefox for nearly three years.

It seems there are a lot of features (in various guises) that can be traced back to earlier open source inspirations. But open source really falls short with PR. The open source community develops something great and either Microsoft or Apple (and now Google) steals it and spins it with their great PR and marketing so it seems as if the open source community is playing catch-up once again.

It is my opinion that the open source community needs a much louder voice. And with this louder voice it needs to do a much better job of patting itself on the back so features like stealth browsing can be credited to the right group or person (in this case, Filip Bozic).

So, is Firefox really playing catch up? Or is this yet another shining example of bigger companies playing "stealth mode" with the truth? Will we ever know?

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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

15 comments
tinyang73
tinyang73

It really forces the different entities which put out browsers to continually improve upon their product. Look at MS and how lazy they got with their browsers everytime they had no pressing competition. Firefox is just trying to keep up, and I think it's great. Besides, Mozilla never got as complacent with Firefox as MS did with IE.

shardeth-15902278
shardeth-15902278

But I don't see this feature as being nearly as useful as FF with the combination of NoScript, FlashBlock and AdBlock plugins. I am far more interested in being able to easily manage who does what and when on my computer, than in who might peek at my logs/cache.

e_caroline
e_caroline

I installed Firefox on dozens of library computers and we preset them for what amounts to the privacy-mode described in the article just by changing a few defaults. We made sure the defaults didn't get messed with user-to-user by using proprietary software that "ghosted" the hard drive and restored it between users. Granted this is a special use of Firefox... but the ability to lock it down per the "privacy mode" mentioned has existed for quite some time. No matter how much we try to reduce incredibly complex systems to single-button fixes, they usually end up needing all kinds of exceptions and checkboxes that make the one-button fix as complicated as the thing it was meant to simplify. Anyhow... it is kind of disingenuous to kind of suggest a piece of software is naked security-wise when actually the security features have been there all along but is in the menuing system intended for user tweaking. Until we have an OTI (Omnipotent Telepathy Interface) there will never be a one button solution to much of anything that offers any flexibility at all.

davidakachaos
davidakachaos

There is already an addon for Firefox for privacy browsing; Distrust. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/1559 [quote of the addon website] Hide surfing trails that the browser leaves behind. AKA Private Browsing. Once turned on this extension monitors FireFox for its activities. Once turned off Distrust will remove history items cache and cookies that were used during the distrust session. Note: that cookies are not removed right away but only when FireFox is closed. Distrust does not remove the cookies but makes them expire when FireFox is closed.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i've tried the chrome incognito and it's pretty much a single click to absolute stealth mode.

e_caroline
e_caroline

A total lockdown of one click may just be a total lockown. but that also means a pretty good supply of desireable features won't work. There are plenty of benevolent sites where you want your cookies retained. You may want to keep a history to document an ongoing research effort. To accomplish selective purging you end up needing menus and checkboxes again. Such total purges will probably be favored most by employees surfing porn-sites at work.. although a capable network administrator will be able to track it anyway... just less easily. At any rate... my point is tha one-size-fits-all security doesn't work any better than one-size-fits-all clothing. For the people who happen to be the same size as the one-size.. all is well.. for everyone else.. some tailoring is needed.

tinyang73
tinyang73

I've been using Vidalia: http://www.vidalia-project.net/download.php Which combines controlls for Tor and Privoxy into a GUI. I've been using this in conjuction with accessing the net with only apps from my U3 device which makes sure that all of my internet leavings (cache, cookies, authenticated sessions, saves passwords, etc.), email, usenet, etc. stay only on my U3 USB dongle and are never left on computers that I browser the internet on. U3 devices are also uber portable and easy to secure and backup. More info here: http://portableapps.com/

shardeth-15902278
shardeth-15902278

They request a live, realtime capture of your internet activity from your ISP. The stuff on your Hard Drive is certainly icing on the cake, but it isn't necessarily required. All ISP's are required to comply. If you don't, the nice young men in black suits will show up and start pulling plugs/cutting cables, which isn't real good for business.

e_caroline
e_caroline

People surfing porn sites at large businesses generally are not computer pros and probably don't have a strong understanding that all their activities are potentially trackable via logfiles and sniffers and what-not. Mostly cube-dwellers would naively imagine that purging a browser hides their activity. They are incorrect if they think a diligent net-savvy manager cannot track them at work. They *are* correct if they are just trying to avoid the embarasment of having co-workers seeing traces of their porn-browsing as cube-dwellers idly socialize inter-cube-ally.

seanferd
seanferd

All you need to do is clean up after yourself, and you get the same features "privacy mode" offers. It isn't like it's anonymizing your network presence or anything. Log files? It's a crapshoot. Logging and actually reviewing logs is something security professionals have been trying to get admins to do for years. Not just with the OS default logging either, but configuring logging to suit.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i didn't even think of log files. of course companies can log every single bit of network traffic going in and out of the company. but then i wonder just how many actually do? sure large corporations will certainly do this. but what about the small to medium companies that make up the bulk of business? probably not. to be perfectly honest i can't seem to wrap my mind around a positive reason why a browser would need a stealth mode.

LyleTaylor
LyleTaylor

Most corporations probably already log all web traffic to external web sites (I know mine does), so in general there is no need to look at a user's browser history and cache to see what they've been doing. Now, for personal users and small businesses, there you have more issues. However, law enforcement would probably be able to have your ISP log traffic just as easily, so I think this type of feature is more for public terminals and cases of a spouse/partner doing something they don't want the other to know about. Otherwise, I don't see much valid use for it in the business or home.

rkuhn040172
rkuhn040172

Porn surfing at work. Who really needs temp files, cookies, etc to track where their users have been surfing? C'mon. It's the 21 century. That said and I have to admit I don't know how this mode works, but it is my impression that Chrome merely deletes the files from the hard drive when you're done browsing. Nothing out there to stop me from recovering and restoring those deleted files.

jlwallen
jlwallen

that's one of the issues that will accompany these new "p0rn mode" browsers. surfing NSFW sites while at work and, even worse, what happens when the FBI needs to track down browser usage and can not because of these types of features? who is going to wind up taking the fall?

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