Mozilla adds privacy mode to Firefox 3.1 plans

Pressured by rivals, Mozilla hopes once-yanked privacy tools ship with 3.1 beta

Mozilla Corp. will respond to rivals Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. with a private-browsing mode in Firefox, according to notes posted on its Web site, and is on track to deliver one in 3.1, the version that will likely go beta next month.

Sometimes pegged with the catchy moniker of "porn mode" in a nod to the most obvious use, browser privacy modes limit or entirely eliminate what the application records of its travels across the Internet. Typically, URLs are not recorded in the browser history, cookies are not saved and other evidence is purged from the computer at the end of the session.

In a note from a Firefox 3.1 status update meeting held Tuesday, Mozilla said: "Private Browsing Mode: Ehsan [Akhgari] went and implemented Connor's functional spec bug 248970 -- way to go! Now back on track for beta date."

The reference to 248970 was to an entry in Bugzilla, Mozilla's bug and feature tracking system, where Firefox lead developer Mike Connor spelled out what the browser's privacy mode would encompass.

"[It should] ensure that users can't be tracked when doing 'private' things," said Connor in an e-mail to another Mozilla developer. Specifically, the mode would:

  • Discard all cookies acquired during the private session.
  • Not record sites visited to the browser's history.
  • Not autofill passwords, and not prompt the user to save passwords.
  • Remove all downloads done during the session from the browser's download manager.

Google's Chrome was clearly on the minds of some Mozilla developers when discussing the private-browsing mode addition to Firefox. "Recent development with Chrome will likely make finally getting private-browsing mode shipped a priority for 3.1," said Alex Faaborg, a Mozilla user experience designer, two days after Chrome debuted.

Both Chrome and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) Beta 2 include private-browsing tools. The former dubs its feature "Incognito," while Microsoft uses "InPrivate" as the umbrella term for IE8's tools.

Apple Inc.'s Safari browser also boasts a private-browsing mode.

Connor was bullish on getting the new mode into Firefox 3.1 in time to make the cut for Beta 1, which is scheduled for a code freeze the last day of this month. "We can and will get this into 3.1 one way or another," he said in a Bugzilla message Monday.

Like many of the features planned for Firefox 3.1, the private-browsing mode was originally slated for Firefox 3.0, the major upgrade that shipped in June. However, it was yanked several months ago during Version 3.0's development.

"I don't think that we should count on this feature making it into Firefox 3," said Mike Beltzner, Mozilla's director for Firefox, in a Bugzilla posting on Jan. 23. Beltzner then listed several reasons, among them the fact that other more pressing issues needed to be addressed to keep the browser on schedule.

"This is great stuff, and I think a fantastic and huge step toward a much desired ability to do true private browsing," Beltzner continued in January. "[I] am truly appreciative of all the work put into this, and by no means am suggesting we abandon things. Just that we make sure to not get disappointed if it misses."

Last month, after Microsoft announced that IE8 Beta 2 would include InPrivate, Beltzner noted that a Firefox extension called "Stealther" added a similar set of features. "[It] basically emulates InPrivate for Firefox users," he said in an e-mail to Computerworld. It's almost identical to the Microsoft feature, except it doesn't require users to open a new window.

"Still not the full experience we want to enable, but interesting," he added.

The Stealther extension can be downloaded from Mozilla's add-on site.

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