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Mozilla wants to estimate Firefox's Telemetry-off population

Mozilla Firefox is one of the few web browsers out there that gives users and system administrators options to turn off Telemetry.

Telemetry, which Mozilla introduced in Firefox 7 back in 2011, provides data to Mozilla which the organization uses to refine its products.

While that is often beneficial to users, for instance when issues are detected and fixed, it has also been used in the past to justify the removal of features from Firefox. The removal of features based on Telemetry led to my suggestion in 2013 to keep Telemetry enabled to make “your voice” count.

Telemetry controls in Firefox

firefox data collection

Firefox users who are concerned about the collection and sending of Telemetry data to Mozilla can turn off the functionality in the browser’s options.

All that it takes is to load about:preferences#privacy in the browser’s address bar and check or uncheck the following options:

  • Allow Firefox to send technical and interaction data to Mozilla
  • Allow Firefox to install and run studies
  • Allow Firefox to send backlogged crash reports on your behalf

Turning off Telemetry does not mean that Firefox won’t make any connections to Mozilla anymore as other browser functions, e.g. update checks, are still enabled by default.

Telemetry Coverage

telemetry coverage

Mozilla revealed in August 2018 that it had no data on the number of Firefox installations with disabled Telemetry.

Finally, we need better insight into our opt-out rates for telemetry. We use telemetry to ensure new features improve your user experience and to guide Mozilla’s business decisions. However, an unknown portion of our users do not report telemetry for a variety of reasons. This means we may not have data that is representative of our entire population.

The organization made the decision to measure Telemetry Coverage to get an estimate of the percentage of Firefox installations with Telemetry set to off.

Mozilla created  the Telemetry Coverage system add-on and distributed it to 1% of the Firefox population. The add-on is automatically installed and designed to inform Mozilla whether Telemetry is enabled in the browser.

The add-on reports data similar to the one below to Mozilla when it is installed:

{
“appVersion”: “63.0a1”,
“appUpdateChannel”: “nightly”,
“osName”: “Darwin”,
“osVersion”: “17.7.0”,
“telemetryEnabled”: true
}

The reporting does not include a client identifier and it is not associated with Firefox Telemetry.

Firefox users can create toolkit.telemetry.coverage.opt-out and set it to true to opt-out of this. Problem is that this is only mentioned on the Bugzilla page over on the Mozilla website and not in the add-on description according to Mozilla’s announcement on the Mozilla blog.

This measurement will not include a client identifier and will not be associated with our standard telemetry.

Mozilla has been criticized for installing the Telemetry Coverage add-on in Firefox installations, e.g. on Reddit. The main claims are that a) Mozilla makes it difficult to near impossible to prevent the installation of system add-ons, and b) that data is sent to Mozilla about the system even if Telemetry is turned off.

While some users argue that this is not an issue at all, since Firefox just sends information about the Telemetry status, others see it as a privacy issue as other data is submitted to Mozilla automatically with the request (IP address).

Closing Words

The release of the system add-on is controversial and so where other decisions Mozilla made in the past. I truly understand the need for data to improve products and better address user needs and requirements but think that Mozilla is shooting itself in its own foot once more.

There needs to be a rethinking about these experiments and how they are conducted. In 2016 I asked Mozilla to give users control over system add-ons in Firefox and I still believe that the organization should implement easy on/off controls for those in the browser similarly to what it has done with Shield Studies.

Part of Firefox’s userbase, mostly those using the browser because of its better privacy controls, will continue to criticize Mozilla unless the organization changes its approach to studies and Telemetry fundamentally.

Now You: What is your take on this?

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