Firefox settings page for usage data collection

Mozilla engineers are discussing plans to change the way Firefox collects usage data (telemetry), and the organization is currently preparing to test an opt-out clause an opt-out clause so they could collect more data relevant to the browser's usage.

In a Google Groups discussion that's been taking place since Monday, Mozilla engineers cite the lack of usable data the Foundation is currently receiving via its data collection program.

At the moment, users who want to share data with Mozilla must opt-in by ticking a checkbox in the Firefox settings. This opt-in measure is user privacy friendly but robs Mozilla of the usage details its engineers need to improve the browser.

Current Firefox telemetry is sorta... useless

The problem is that Firefox collects data from a very small fraction of its userbase, and this data may not be representative of the browser's real usage.

Georg Fritzsche, one of the Firefox engineers, would like the browser to have the ability to collect more usage data in an unbiased manner, possibly enabling it by default and providing an opt-out clause.

The engineer is conscious that concerns about user privacy will be brought into the discussion. As such, the Firefox team has decided it will implement a technique called "differential privacy" for collecting the extra user data it needs.

Support for "differential privacy" will be done by embedding Google's RAPPOR project [1, 2], a technology for crowdsourcing statistics from end-user software, anonymously, and with strong privacy guarantees.

RAPPOR (Randomized Aggregatable Privacy-Preserving Ordinal Response) is currently used for collecting anonymous usage data from Google Chrome users.

Mozilla will test the opt-out clause in the coming weeks

Fritzsche said Mozilla would carry out a study in the upcoming weeks to see how users react to the opt-out clause. Responses to the Google Groups discussions have been generally negative.

"I don't have the neccesary [sic] information to say whether this is correct, moral, or neccesary [sic], but I will say that I believe Opt-in is pro-privacy, while Opt-out is anti-privacy," one user said. "If Firefox is dedicated to preserving privacy, then no Opt-[out] data feature should be added."

"Having something like this be opt-out is very anti-privacy," another user added. "I'm thoroughly disappointed. [...] I wish you the worst of luck in your new venture to infringe even further upon the privacy of your users."

Another user participating in the discussion wasn't so friendly in his response. "If this will be implemented, I’ll have to file a complaint with the relevant Landes- and Bundesbeauftragten für Datenschutz, and, possibly, escalate this to the EU Data Privacy commissioners office," the user threatened.

Nonetheless, compared to other companies that pushed privacy policy changes on users without prior consultation [see Sonos and Plex incidents], Mozilla is taking the right steps by discussing it with users in advance and trying to find a solution that helps both sides. For this, the organization deserves praises.