Mozilla Firefox recently implemented a feature back in September that was optional before, but is now enabled by default. There’s been some outrage over this; however, not a lot of discussion about what it actually does and what it means. Let’s break down how it works, and whether or not it poses a significant privacy risk to you.
All web browsers have a built in list of words, usually sorted by frequency, that they’ll recommend for you. When you have a fresh install of the browser, these suggestions are taken from data about popular search terms across all users, but as you use it more, it’ll recommend things that might be more relevant to you. This is because those search engines keep track of cookies, and they can use those cookies to make your experience better.
Mozilla’s new feature is taking this basic concept and extending to the next level. Rather than just basing the search terms on cookies that it collects as you use the internet, they’re implementing a more dynamic system where they extract information directly, in combination with other information they’re harvesting from you, in order to more aggressively tailor your web browsing experience.
Mozilla is not taking any new information that wasn’t already being extracted before. Some sites have decided to try and spin this as if it’s crossing a new boundary; this is not the case. Mozilla is combining information that you were already giving them (location, age, gender) and combining it with your keystrokes in order to better find what you want.
In other words, this is not a bigger privacy concern than any kind of browsing the internet. That being said, many privacy conscious users consciously avoid disclosing or revealing the aforementioned information.
If you’re very privacy focused but still dead set on using Mozilla Firefox, you can disable this feature with ease.