You may have heard of Firefox Containers. But do you know what they are? How do they help us? To understand the purpose of this feature, you need to understand how web tracking works.
Let’s begin with Facebook.
For e.g. John looks up used cars on a search engine and visits some pages for more information. Later he visits Facebook, and starts seeing recommendations for used cars. John is puzzled because he never searched for these on the social network.
The website may have had ads, and/or third-party tracking cookies. The cookies may be used to link activity to a particular computer, and they remain active unless they expire or they are deleted on the local machine.
All these are part of your digital fingerprint which may include personally identifiable details such as your IP address, browser information, location, or operating system. This data is “shared” by the website you visited (through the elements on the page), to the social network. So when John logs into Facebook, the cookies are used to identify him as the one who visited the used cars website.
This is how they track you and display “Relevant Ads”, “Recommended Pages”, and all that. In case of ads and third-party cookies, it can be worse. The data may be shared with companies affiliated to the advertising network, in other words unknown entities.
Facebook uses different kinds of tracking methods, this example is just one of them. That’s the reason why Mozilla has a Facebook Container add-on, an extension dedicated to prevent the tracking atrocities of the network.
I still hear stories of privacy horror like “I was planning a trip with my friends, and began seeing Facebook ads for hotels located there”. This was from friend, and he had used Google Maps to look up the distance from his city to the destination. How did Facebook know that? He claims the app was listening. I cannot confirm such theories without evidence, but yes these have happened to me too. Recently I was discussing visiting a book fair with a family member. A few minutes later he handed me his phone and I saw that the phone app was recommending a page about books. That’s creepy. I have no explanation for these things.
Note: I don’t hate Facebook, I have had clients contact me through the service. It’s a pretty good way to stay in touch with friends/family, but the tracking has gone too far. That’s why I don’t use the app, I login to the mobile website only when required (or when someone texts/calls me to say “Hey Ash, check Facebook”). But that’s me, I understand that people need to use messenger for day-to-day communication. You should definitely use the Facebook Container extension to minimize the tracking.
Cookie based tracking
Not all cookies are bad. The ones you used to sign in to your accounts, and stay signed in are helpful. You want to store these. But some cookies do more than that, they track your internet usage, even when you leave their website, i.e., they can know which website you visited after you left their site. Firefox blocks third-party tracking cookies by default. Some can be even more intrusive and use information from other cookies.
Time for another example.
Let’s say you bought some cookies, they are of different kinds. But you have a single cookie jar, so you put them all together. What happens? Bits and pieces, crumbs of cookies get mixed up with one another. It’s a mess.
Now, replace the edible cookies with browser cookies. For e.g. Google, Facebook, Shopping sites, Financial sites, etc. Your browser stores these cookies together. That ends up in a digital breadcrumb trail. So they can know what you searched for, or which pages you previously visited etc, all in the name of offering a “personalized browsing experience”.
This is the reason why you will see ad banners or pages related to the product you search for or purchased. At what cost, though? Would you be okay with some random company having (parts of) your medical history, insurance or banking information, your home address, or your family information? NO.
What are Firefox Containers?
One unique way of preventing cookie based tracking is to isolate them, sort of like storing them in different jars. But in this case, we use Firefox Containers. Note that you may also block all third-party cookies in the browser, and that should deal with the bulk of cookie-based tracking as well.
You can have a container for Google, another for Twitter, a separate one for Amazon, one for your bank, a different for PayPal, and so on. Each of these act as a digital container, each containing the cookies of the website you want. Your Amazon cookie is restricted to its container, your bank’s to its container, etc. Get it? This way, none of the websites have access to the cookies or the history of the other websites. This enhances your privacy greatly.
Another advantages of using Firefox Containers is to use multiple accounts, in case you have more than one on the same service. While you are at it, you should also use uBlock Origin to prevent ad banners and malicious scripts from tracking you.
Will Firefox Containers guarantee my privacy?
They can minimize the tracking. Nothing can guarantee your privacy, because most services are constantly finding new ways to track users for marketing, advertising, affiliate purposes and some of them have unlimited resources for this. We live in a digital world, we can only do so much. Don’t use cloud services for storing personal data, passwords, clear your cookies regularly, avoid shady sites and suspicious URLs, use throw away accounts if you have to. Tor and VPNs can help too, but make sure you don’t use them with your regular account’s containers.