Mozilla relaunches the Firefox Test Pilot program to test privacy-focused products

Mozilla relaunched the Firefox Test Pilot program on September 10, 2019 to test privacy-focused products.

The organization shut down the program twice already, the last time in January 2019. The second “Test Pilot” program was launched by Mozilla in 2016 as a way to test new features, get feedback from Firefox users, and gather data to determine if experiments would make good additions to Firefox, be better off as extensions, or standalone services.

Some features, Tracking Protection or Activity Stream were integrated into Firefox. Others, Containers being one, were released as extensions on Mozilla AMO, the official add-on repository.

Today’s relaunch of the Test Pilot program moves the program into a different direction. Mozilla notes that it is designed to give “loyal and faithful users” an option to “test-drive new, privacy-centric products as part of the relaunched Test Pilot program”. One of the core differences to the previous program is that these products may be outside of the Firefox web browser and that they will be “just one step shy of general public release”.

Firefox Private Network

The first product of the new Test Pilot program is called Firefox Private Network. The program is open to users from the United States only at the time and a Firefox account is required as well.

Mozilla’s description is vague when it comes to the underlying functionality. It appears to be a browser proxy of sorts designed to protect Internet traffic better similarly to other third-party proxy/VPN extensions for Firefox. The service is free for a limited time only according to Mozilla.

The organization highlights three key features:

  • Protection of data when using public WiFi access points.
  • The IP address of the user is masked from sites and advertisers.
  • Ability to toggle it on or off.

The encrypted traffic flows through servers provided by Cloudflare, the same company that Mozilla picked for Firefox’s upcoming DNS over HTTPS feature. Mozilla promises that “strong privacy controls limit what data” Cloudflare may collect and for how long it may store the data that it is allowed to connect.

firefox private account

Firefox Private Network is offered as a browser extension for Firefox. It adds an icon to Firefox’s toolbar that indicates whether the service is enabled or not. A click on the icon displays its basic interface; you need to sign in to a Firefox account to start using it.

The only option that the extension provides is to toggle the product on or off. Options to see the new IP address, switch to a different server, and other comfort functions are missing at this point.

Cloudflare’s Privacy Policy for the product reveals that the nearest Cloudflare data center is picked.

Whenever the extension is active, the browser will establish a secure connection to the nearest Cloudflare data center and the Cloudflare proxy will route your web-traffic to the requested website through the Cloudflare network.

A click on the settings icon displays options to leave feedback or check out the privacy policy. The Firefox Private Network privacy policy provides information on Cloudflare’s handling of the data:

  • Cloudflare records the IP address, destination IP address, source and destination port, timestamp, and a token provided by Mozilla that indicates that the service is used. The company will delete the data within 24 hours.
  • Cloudflare won’t log HTTP request data that is not encrypted.
  • Cloudflare may not use the data in any way except for improving the service and assist in debugging if issues arise.

Mozilla receives data to better understand “service performance, interaction with Firefox” and how to improve the feature.

  • Firefox sends data about the device, operating system version and a unique identifier that Mozilla connects to the Firefox Account.
  • Mozilla gets Firefox Account data including the email address, locale and IP address, and interaction data next to that.

Closing Words

Firefox Private Network is a proxy service designed to improve user privacy by letting traffic flow through Cloudflare’s servers. It sounds as if the service will launch as a paid service eventually; whether it is going to become available worldwide then or only to select regions remains to be seen.

Mozilla struck a deal with Cloudflare that limits Cloudflare’s access to the data; this won’t be sufficient to some users but may be sufficient to the majority.  I’m by far more interested in the linking of a unique identifier to a Firefox account. It is not clear if the link will be kept indefinitely or if it is only stored for the testing period.

Much of the success of Firefox Private Network will depend on the price and whether a free version will be offered. Mozilla could, in theory, launch the extension for Google Chrome as well to reach more potential customers.

Browser proxies like Firefox Private Network are limited to the browser they are installed it. VPN services on the other hand run on the system which makes their use flexible as they protect the user in all applications.

Now You: What is your take on Firefox Private Network?

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