This article was last updated on 11-Dec-2018. See the revision history at the end.
Though this guide is centered around the Firefox web browser, users of other browsers may find it helpful as well. It is also useful for configuring the Thunderbird email client and some other Mozilla based software.
Many of us are aware of the immense threats to our on-line privacy and security posed by various technology companies, governments and malicious hackers, any of which may go to great lengths to monitor our electronic communications. Governments and their “intelligence” apparatuses not only spy on each other, but on the citizenry as well and they leverage the services of various companies to do so, including Google, Facebook, Verizon, Comcast, Amdocs and many others which most of us have probably never heard of. While the data they compile may be used for relatively benign purposes such as displaying targeted advertising on web pages, the intentions are often far more sinister. Much of what Edward Snowden has brought to the table is not new, but it seems the information has been presented in a way that has captured the attention of the public, prompting many to seek ways to mitigating the threats.
While the primary goal of this guide is to help the reader thwart some of the more obvious efforts to track and profile us as we surf the web, as well as increase browser security and performance, understand that i am not an expert in computer security or privacy and there are surely many more variables and vectors of attack than i am aware of. While there are many known methods that can be used to compromise our digital well being, how many more are there which we know nothing of? Or what about established technologies that most of us fail to consider? For example, even if you are a knowledgeable, technically proficient and privacy conscious individual who uses open hardware devices running open source firmware and a security enhanced operating system with carefully chosen software, and even if you connect to the internet only through Tor, you are still at risk because, disregarding everything else, your unique writing style can be used to identify you. It is not this level of sophistication that this guide will address however. My goal is to share what i have learned over the years as a casual web surfer and computer user who has a hobbyist-grade interest in computer security and digital privacy. Having said that, i believe — and please correct me if i’m wrong — this guide is currently the most comprehensive of its kind in that it addresses many aspects of the Firefox browser including configuration, extensions and other optimizations. If you want to go further than this guide can carry you, see the resources section at the end of this document which includes the fine article, Improve Your Privacy in the Age of Mass Surveillance. I would also highly recommend using a VPN to help prevent spying by your ISP or other actors. TorrentFreak regularly publishes information regarding many of the popular VPN service providers. Their annual guide for 2018 is located here.
For many of us our web browser is our primary window to the the digital world and it is therefore necessary for any privacy conscious individual to have a basic understanding what information flows through our browser and how that information is used to track and profile us,. Contrary to statements made in The Mozilla Manifesto, it is my opinion that respecting the privacy of its users is largely an afterthought for the multi-million dollar Mozilla Foundation and their flagship product, Firefox. This is readily apparent when one considers the array of ethically challenged multinationals which Mozilla has chosen to partner with, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Telefónica, LG Electronics, Sony, Verizon, Cisco and others. Furthermore, core features of the “open source” browser may be proprietary and rely upon 3rd parties which have their own privacy policies, such as its Pocket service and its “privacy” policy. And let’s not forget the ‘Looking Glass’ fiasco which you can read about in Looking Glass: The next ‘bright idea’ from Mozilla. Google Chrome, developed by a privacy hating company, is certainly no better and Internet Explorer isn’t worth the effort required to express an opinion. In short, there exist no mature, capable, extensible, stable, open source, privacy-centric web browser that is suitable for mainstream usage at this time so far as i am aware. Given the lack of alternatives, i think Firefox is currently the best candidate for our purposes and, with some effort, it can be beaten into submission and bent to our will. I suspect the folks behind the Tor Project may feel compelled to use Firefox in their Tor Browser Bundle for similar reasons.
As with any modern, mainstream browser, Mozilla Firefox is a highly complex beast consisting of millions of lines of code and hundreds of configuration options, many of which are interlinked, hidden, or undocumented. Things can go down the toilet real quick if you start messing around with its settings willy-nilly and poorly coded add-ons can compound the problem. Here we will attempt to accomplish our goals in an efficient manner with a minimal dependency upon 3rd party add-ons.
A bit of a trade-off must be expected when we tighten up on security and privacy insomuch as some websites will cease to function properly until the settings for those specific sites are adjusted. Anyone who has used a content filter such as NoScript or Request Policy will understand that certain resources must be allowed for a given website to function in a way that is acceptable to us. Similar to NoScript however, the process of allowing required resources usually consists of a mouse click or three followed by a page refresh and once we have made the necessary adjustments for our favorite websites, our workload will be greatly reduced. Nevertheless, be prepared to put a little more effort into your web surfing activities in general and expect the occasional hard-case where more fiddling than usual will be required to get a particular site working properly. The pay-off is a much cleaner and faster web that is less able to track and profile us, as well as a somewhat hardened and speedier Firefox that is more resistant to attack.
Add-on/extension: I use these terms interchangeably. A web browser add-on or extension is a piece of software typically developed by a 3rd party that extends the built-in capability of the browser. Web extensions, which use leverage the WebExtension API (Application Programming Interface), have replaced the older legacy (XUL/XPCOM) extensions beginning with Firefox version 57. This newer type is essentially the same format which is used for Google Chrome and other web browsers. Unfortunately the WebExtension API is severely limited. For example, such extensions cannot modify the GUI (Graphic User Interface) of Firefox in the same way the old legacy extensions could.
AMO: addons.mozilla.org, the Mozilla add-ons website.
Crapware/malware: I consider crapware to be software which contains code that is not relevant to the functionality users expect. In this case the term crapware, or malware, refers largely to adware, tracking mechanisms and malicious code, mostly in web browser extensions. Crapware is often added to browser extensions by a company or solo developer who wishes to monetizing their work. Often monetization takes the form of profiling users and selling the data collected by the extension to a marketing company, however much worse is possible.
CDN: A Content Delivery Network is a service that hosts reusable content, such as graphics and reusable scripts which developers can leverage to make building web platforms easier. CDNs often present a threat to our privacy by tracking our web activities. They are perhaps a most formidable threat because a single CDN service may be used by many millions of popular websites and therefore the spying capabilities of the company providing the CDN service can be widespread and cross-domain in nature. The use of CDNs is prolific today and since many websites will not function without the content they deliver, globally blocking CDN content is hardly an option.
CSS: Cascading Style Sheets are used primarily to apply visual styling to HTML elements, thus making web pages look pretty, however the capability of CSS has been expanded well beyond its original capability to the point where it can now be used for nefarious purposes.
Domain/subdomain/TLD: In the example ‘sub.example.com’, ‘example’ is the root domain, ‘sub’ is a subdomain of the root domain and ‘com’ is the TLD, or Top Level Domain. You can think of root domains and subdomains as sort of different containers which are used to separate content on a single website. For example, let’s say kitties.com is focused primarily on information about kittens, but they also might have a web store where they sell paper bags. In order to keep their store content separate from their primary content, they may host the store on the subdomain ‘shop.kitties.com’.
HTTP/HTTPS: Hypertext Transfer Protocol and Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure are communication protocols used by computers to transmit data over the internet. For HTTP an unsecured, unencrypted connection is established which is vulnerable to ISP (Internet Service Provider) snooping and man-in-the-middle attacks, while a secure, encrypted connection is established with HTTPS. While browser extensions like HTTPS Everywhere will always attempt to encrypt your connection whenever possible, some web servers simply do not support HTTPS. For this reason i will again point out the advantage of using a VPN.
Tracking: Once the identity of the browser is known through fingerprinting and/or stored data, it is then possible to track its activity both within the same domain and across domains. See also the explanation for ‘web storage’ below.
Web fonts/remote fonts: These are font packages typically hosted by a 3rd party, such as Google, which a web developer may use to specify how text is displayed on a website. Web fonts present a few problems regarding browser tracking and security.
Web server: For the purpose of this document, a web server is a computer that is connected to the internet which hosts (serves) one or more websites.
Web storage: In addition to HTTP cookies and web caching, most/all popular web browsers also allow a web server to store data using several other methods including local and session storage, indexedDB storage, window.name storage, Etag cache storage, Local Shared Objects storage, Service Worker storage, offline storage, HTTP Strict Transport Security storage and other methods. Stored data for Firefox may consume up to 50% of your free disk space. If you are concerned about protecting your privacy, you have far more to worry about than the cookies of yesteryear which were simple text files that, in theory, but not always in practice, could be read only by the domain that set them.
Get a decent code editor
You should have a decent code editor with syntax highlighting to edit Firefox’s configuration files. Linux users should have something suitable installed by default, such as Kate, however if you’re running Windows i might suggest Notepad++ or PSPad, the latter being the simpler of the two.
Unhide file extensions
There are several flavors of Firefox beyond the stable release version including the ESR (Extended Support Release). The ESR version is usually an older version that may not contain the latest features but may be more stable. There is also a Developer Edition which includes the very latest features (and bugs). There are also a variety of 3rd party builds such as Waterfox, Cyberfox, Pale Moon, etc., and while there are certain advantages to running a 3rd party build, i currently do not recommend any of them since they may not keep up with the latest security patches, or are buggy, or are simply outdated and incompatible with the latest add-ons. While some 3rd party builds are more privacy-centric out of the box, we can accomplish essentially the same degree of privacy or better with minimal effort while using the official Mozilla builds.
The user.js file
A user.js file is the best way to store your personal preferences for Firefox. The one we will be using is a result of a lot of effort by ‘Pants’ and ‘earthing’ and the rest of the ‘ghacks’ crew and contributors whose work became rather popular when it was published as A comprehensive list of Firefox privacy and security settings by Martin Brinkmann on ghacks.net. The ‘ghacks’ user.js is now maintained on GitHub.
In addition to the ‘ghacks’ user.js, you may wish to append my personal preferences from my user-overrides.js which you can find on my GitLab repository, though this is entirely optional. Note that my preferences are strictly intended to be appended to the ‘ghacks’ user.js and not to be used independently. Some of my preferences are original and some are copies of those in the ‘ghacks’ version where i changed some of their settings to suit my own needs and cause less webpage breakage. It also contains preferences which enable smooth, dynamic scrolling when using a mouse wheel. How to properly incorporate the user.js and user-overrides.js files is described in a later section.
The necessary (and not so necessary) add-ons
All of the add-ons listed here are of the WebExtension variety, meaning most should work with Firefox versions 57 to 59 and all should work with versions 60 and higher.
Following are the add-ons i highly recommend:
- Cookie AutoDelete: Automatically manages cookies and some web storage, helping to prevent tracking and improving privacy.
- CSS Exfil Protection: Helps to prevent attackers from stealing data by exploiting Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
- Neat URL: Removes many tracking and other (mostly) unnecessary parameters from links, such as the
utm_*tracking parameters used by Google Analytics.
- uBlock Origin (uBO): An and excellent ad/content blocker for Firefox and Chromium, uBlock can use the same filter lists as Adblock Plus as well as many more which it cannot. Make sure you use the original uBlock Origin by Raymond Hill and not one of the many copycat versions.
- uMatrix (uM): By the same developer as uBlock Origin, uMatrix is also a powerful content blocker that will provide more granular control over web content requests than uBlock.
The following add-ons are optional, but recommended:
- Don’t touch my tabs!: Prevents a new tab opened from a hyperlink from hijacking the original tab by adding the
rel=noopenerattribute to all hyperlinks.
- Header Editor: allows to modify HTTP request and response headers. You can use this to prevent ETag tracking among other things.
- Skip Redirect: skips link redirections such as used by Google, AMO and many other companies and websites, thus helping to prevent tracking.
- Smart HTTPS: Attempts to force websites to use an encrypted connection (HTTPS) but will fall back to an unencrypted connection (HTTP) if the website does not support HTTPS.
The following add-ons are optional:
- NoScript Security Suite: since uMatrix will be used to control scripts, this functionality is not required from NoScript, though it may add a bit more protection in terms of cross-site request forgeries, click hijacking and possibly other areas. If you use NoScript you will might want to disable script blocking in NoScript and pass that job to uMatrix since it offers easier control of script blocking.
- Smart Referer: Sends the referring domain/page to the web server only when you visit another page within the same domain, thus helping to thwart tracking. This may not be needed if you use uMatrix.
For more possibilities regarding add-ons, see Firefox Extensions: My Picks.
A word about uBlock Origin and uMatrix
It seems a lot of people have questions and misunderstandings about these two important add-ons. Here’s some of the questions i often see and my answers to them:
Q: What’s the difference between uBlock and uMatrix?
A: Although they perform similar functions in that they essentially block content much like a software firewall, the developer tries to target two different audiences and they work somewhat differently. Many people think uBlock is easier to use, while uMatrix offers more granular control.
Q: Can they be used together?
A: Absolutely, but because there is overlapping functionality they need to be properly configured to reduce frustration and work efficiently together.
Q: which one should i use?
Automatic add-on updates
Regarding automatic add-on updates which are enabled by default in Firefox, they are disabled in the ‘ghacks’ user.js file and i would strongly suggest keeping them disabled. Automatic checking for updates is fine and this is enabled in the ‘ghacks’ user.js, but we do not want Firefox to install add-on updates without our explicit consent. The problem with automatic add-on updating is that developers may, at any time and without notice, monetize their add-on or sell their work to an unethical 3rd party and this usually results in compromising your privacy by turning you into the product. The problem of crapware containing add-ons has exploded in the AMO repository for a couple reasons; 1), because Mozilla moved to the WebExtension API, it is now fairly trivial for every unethical developer that has infected Google Chrome with their garbage to port their extensions to Firefox and, 2), Firefox extensions are no longer reviewed by humans, except perhaps in special cases. Examples of some currently or formerly popular add-ons which contain(ed) such crapware are Abduction, a screen capture utility, Quick Locale Switcher, a language switcher, FasterFox Lite, a largely useless utility which claims to speed-up Firefox but doesn’t, BlockSite, a content blocker, Stylish, a very popular utility for changing the appearance of websites, and many, many others. Not all of these extensions contained crapware when they were first developed which is why i strongly suggest keeping automatic add-on updates disabled and carefully monitoring the change logs, permissions and privacy policies each time an add-on update becomes available. For more about Firefox add-ons, see Firefox Extensions – My Picks.
Let the hacking begin
Firefox post install cleanup
Before you make any changes, back-up your entire Firefox profile (click here to locate it if you don’t already know where it is). The easiest way to do this is to simply to select your profile folder inside the
/firefox folder, press Ctrl+C to copy it, then Ctrl+V to paste it in the same place but with a different name. I might suggest keeping the original name and just appending
-bak to the copy. From this point on, all changes should be made to your original profile, leaving your backup profile untouched in case something explodes. If you want to start fresh you may want to empty all unnecessary contents of your profile, keeping only your bookmarks and whatever else you need. See the article Profiles – Where Firefox stores your bookmarks, passwords and other user data if you need help with what data is stored in which file.
Packaged with Firefox are a bunch of system add-ons which are installed without permission and are essentially hidden from the user (they are not listed in about:addons). Some of these add-ons have been and are currently used for quite controversial purposes such as collecting data about how users interact with search engines or the browser, etc.. I suggest removing all of them. On Linux these add-ons are located in
/usr/lib/firefox/browser/features and in
\Program Files (x86)\Firefox\browser\features or
\Program Files\Firefox\browser\features for Windows. You can delete them in Linux using the terminal:
sudo rm *.xpi
These system add-ons will be automatically reinstalled each time Firefox is upgraded. If you’re running Linux with the pacman package manager (Arch, Manjaro), you can prevent their reinstallation by editing the pacman configuration file, pacman.conf. Note that this will not work using Pamac, the GUI package manager, until this bug is addressed. Be sure the example path is correct for your particular case:
sudo nano /etc/pacman.conf
Add the following under the
NoExtract = /usr/lib/firefox/browser/features/*
Another way is to change the permissions of the
sudo chmod 444 /usr/lib/firefox/browser/features
I assume such an option is available for other package managers as well, however i was unable to quickly locate an example for dpkg, the package manager for Debian and its derivatives (Ubuntu, Mint, etc.). Nevertheless, there are multiple ways to prevent these system add-ons from being installed. On Windows you can apparently use CCleaner to disable them.
I recommend reading Firefox Search Engine Cautions and Recommendations which offers information about how Mozilla monetizes Firefox with the included search engine plugins and what can be done to opt out of this affiliate scheme should you so choose.
To understand how HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) works and how it can be used to track browsing activity, as well as the implications of disabling it, read How to prevent HSTS tracking in Firefox on the ghacks website. One quick way to apparently prevent this method of tracking is to simply remove write permissions from SiteSecurityServiceState.txt.
This guide depends heavily on the ‘ghacks’ user.js configuration file which will automatically adjust crucial Firefox preferences, thus you need not worry about manually configuring privacy and storage settings and such from the Preferences menu of Firefox. If you choose to not use the ‘ghacks’ user.js, then your job may be considerably more difficult assuming your goals are similar. Still, you may find it quite helpful to refer to the ‘ghacks’ user.js if you choose to start from scratch.
Firefox profile in RAM
With the wide adoption of speedy Solid State Drives (SSDs), the concept of sticking the Firefox profile in RAM for performance reasons may seem obsolete, however there are still benefits to be gained. If you don’t want to disable disk browser caching, web storage and cookies globally, and thus break a lot of websites in the process, then there will be lots of reads and writes to your storage media resulting in unnecessary wear and tear. Placing your Firefox profile in RAM will alleviate this, however doing so can be risky should some sort of catastrophic failure occur resulting in data loss or corruption. Fortunately there are ways to minimize the risk. If you use Windows you’re on your own since i don’t, suffice to say that there exists Windows compatible software that can manage RAM disks and write your profile back to your storage media when you exit Firefox. Those using most any flavor of Linux have access to a very spiffy utility called Profile-sync-daemon which is designed specifically for this task and it works with quite a few browsers. Check your package manager to see if it’s available in your repository. To get it working, run
man psd in a terminal or consult the Profile-sync-daemon guide on the Arch wiki. Setting it up was very easy in my case and it has worked flawlessly and transparently ever since.
Note that Firefox stores its web cache in a location other than the profile directory. On Linux it’s kept at
/home/[user]/.cache/mozilla/firefox/. Normally you would have to deal with this cache separately if you wanted to store it in RAM also, however since disk caching is completely disabled in the ‘ghacks’ user.js (browser cache is stored in memory only) and the cache is dumped when you exit Firefox, you need not worry about it. If you’re thinking it would be more efficient to keep the browser cache instead of having to re-download objects for websites you visit frequently, you’re right, however doing so will compromise your privacy. We won’t exactly be dumping all of the browser cache either if we use the Decentraleyes add-on.
Editing the user-overrides.js file
Keep the following hierarchy in mind as you read this section. When Firefox starts:
- prefs.js is read by Firefox
- user.js is read by Firefox – all preferences in the user.js file are copied to the prefs.js file and any preferences that are duplicated in both files are overridden by those in user.js – prefs.js is then used to generate what you see in about:config
- user-overrides.js is never read by Firefox but these preferences are appended to user.js via a script or manual copying – this is the only file you should edit if using the ‘ghacks’ user.js
If you do not have a general understanding of the the user.js file, you may want to read this on the ‘ghacks’ wiki. You should also poke around elsewhere in the ‘ghacks’ wiki for detailed information on using and maintaining their user.js file.
In your profile folder, delete your existing user.js file if you have one. You can transfer any needed settings from your backup user.js later if they are not already covered in the ‘ghacks’ one. Next, download the following user-overrides.js template and place it in your profile directory:
The sample template above has a few example preferences (preceded with ‘
//‘)which you can uncomment or remove. It also contains a bunch of preferences to enable silky smooth and dynamic scrolling with a mouse wheel if you want to enable that, else you can delete that entire section along with its accompanying
_user.js parrot preference. With the preceding exception, don’t delete the
_user.js.parrot preferences; they are used for troubleshooting which will be explained later.
You will very likely be changing many Firefox preferences and storing them in your user-overrides.js file and these changes will be appended to the ‘ghacks’ user.js file using a script. This may defy conventional knowledge, so let me be clear:
If you are going to use the ‘ghacks’ user.js file then you should never edit it, (nor the prefs.js file) nor should you change important settings from about:config unless you’re just testing something. All of your custom preferences should be placed in your user-overrides.js file and no where else.
One reason for this is because the ‘ghacks’ user.js is a fairly large file that is updated frequently. If you make changes to this file and then apply an update, your changes will be lost, whereas if you copy the preferences you want to change from the ‘ghacks’ user.js to your user-overrides.js and change the values there, then updating the ‘ghacks’ one will be fairly painless. On the other hand, should you choose to not use the ‘ghacks’ user.js, then you should add your changes to your own user.js and you can ignore everything stated here about the user-overrides.js. Either way, never edit the prefs.js file directly or by way of about:config unless you’re just testing something.
The ‘ghacks’ user.js file we want is hosted on the ghacksuserjs/ghacks-user.js GitHub repository but you need not download it directly. If you are not running the current version of Firefox, click the releases link and find the version that corresponds to the version of Firefox you’re using, otherwise download instead their updater.sh (Linux) or updater.bat (Windows) script from the main page of the repository and place it in your profile folder. You might also want to download their prefsCleaner.sh (Linux) or prefsCleaner.bat (Windows) to reset any unused or old preferences in your prefs.js file. After copying the new files to your active profile folder, run the updater.sh or updater.bat script to fetch the ‘ghacks’ user.js. In Linux, use the terminal and enter
./updater.sh (don’t forget to make the script executable). The script will backup your current user.js file if one exists and download the latest version of the ‘ghacks’ user.js and, finally, it will append the contents of your user-overrides.js to the ‘ghacks’ user.js. You will want to run the updater script every time you make changes to the user-overrides.js file. You can read more about the updater script here and the cleaner script here.
At this point it is important to go through the entire ‘ghacks’ user.js file and read all of the comments and review each of the settings to be sure everything is configured the way you want. This is where having a decent code editor with syntax highlighting is very handy. As stated above, any preferences you want to change in the user.js file should be copied to your user-overrides.js file where you will then change the value of the preference. Note that if you ever comment out or delete a preference in your user-overrides.js file after having run Firefox, that setting will remain in the user.js and prefs.js files. The easiest way to remove such preferences from these files is to exit Firefox and run the ‘ghacks’ prefsCleaner script.
If you use my user-overrides.js, there is a section provided especially for your personal preferences. Mine contains my personal settings and because i wish to avoid the hassle of editing them for public consumption each time i update it, you will need to review them carefully as it is highly likely you will have to make some changes. Remember to run the ‘ghacks’ updater script as previously described any time you make changes.
Verifying the integrity of user.js
It is important to perform an integrity check whenever the ‘ghacks’ user.js file is changed. You might notice a bunch goofy looking
_user.js.parrot preferences in both the ‘ghacks’ user.js and the user-overrides.js template files. These are used for troubleshooting syntax errors by quickly identifying a specific section of the user.js in which the error lies. When you run Firefox for the first time after making changes to your user-overrides.js file, you should disable your network connection and then check the value of the troubleshooting preference by entering about:config in the address bar and searching for the
_user.js.parrot preference (it will likely be the first one listed without having to search). Following is what the value of that preference should be:
- If you are using only the ‘ghacks’ user.js file and have not appended anything to it, then the value should be “SUCCESS: No no he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’!”
- If you have created your own user-overrides.js file using the template provided above and have not added anything more, then the value should be “MY SETTINGS LOADED!”
- If you are using my personal user-overrides.js, the value should be “12bytes.org settings loaded”
- If you have added anything else to your user-overrides.js, the value should be whatever you set it to.
If the value for the troubleshooting preference is not what you expect, then you can use it to quickly determine in which section of the user.js file the syntax error lies. While it cannot narrow down the problem to a specific preference or line number, at least you will know in which section to begin looking. Some common mistakes that i’ve made are forgetting to end a line with a semi-colon, or ending it with a full colon, or forgetting a comma, or keying in
user_perf instead of
user_pref. I make more mistakes than that, but the more i list the stupider i’m gonna look.
The reason i suggest disabling your network connection when you run this check is because Firefox will not load any further preferences in user.js beyond the point of the error and this could present a privacy risk or other issue if you have a network connection.
Updating the user.js file
To update the ‘ghacks’ user.js file just run the updater script. To update my user-overrides.js file, just copy the contents of the new version to your user-overrides.js and then run the updater script. Lastly, you should also run the ‘ghacks’ prefsCleaner script. If you want to keep up with the latest version of the ‘ghacks’ user.js and/or my user-overrides.js files, subscribe to the following feeds:
- the ‘ghacks’ GitHub feed: https://github.com/ghacksuserjs/ghacks-user.js/commits/master.atom
- my ‘labwrat’ GitLab feed: https://gitlab.com/labwrat/Firefox-user.js.atom
- optionally you can subscribe to my website (there is no specific feed for this guide so just use the ‘Tech’ category feed if you use RSS feeds)
Add-on configuration and usage
For the CanvasBLocker settings i would suggest enabling the following:
- Enable expert mode
- Display descriptions
All other settings can be left at their default values with the exception of ‘Block data URL pages’ near the bottom which should be disabled. See here for an explanation.
When CanvasBlocker fudges something for a website, you should see a fingerprint icon in the address bar from where you can see what it fudged and, if need be, whitelist the site.
These are the settings i would recommend enabling:
- Enable Automatic Cleaning? Delay Before Cleaning: [ 10 ] Second(s)
- Enable Cleanup Log and Counter
- Localstorage Cleanup (Firefox 58+)
I don’t see any real advantage in using Container Tabs from a privacy/anti-tracking perspective and therefore i wouldn’t recommend enabling support for them in Cookie AutoDelete. Note that Container Tabs is not the same thing as First Party Isolation, which i also do not recommend enabling at this time unless you’re willing to put up with all the potential headaches it can cause.
CSS Exfil Protection
Turn it on. Next.
You can enable all of the options with the possible exception of ‘Block requests for missing resources’ which will break some websites.
The default settings are sufficient, except i personally disable the whitelisting of HTTP protocols. Normally when you visit a website over HTTP Smart Redirect will attempt to forward your request to HTTPS and, if that fails, it will fall back to HTTP and then add the domain to the whitelist so that subsequent visits would default to HTTP. While the developer does not recommend disabling this behavior, i do it anyway for two reasons: First of all, the whitelist can grow to be very large and, while some of the whitelisted domains truly don’t currently support HTTPS, others do, but if they take too long to respond then Smart HTTPS will mistakenly add them to the whitelist. Every so often i would delete all the whitelisted domains to address this problem, but doing so is a pain because you can’t dump them all at once. Secondly, i don’t care if Smart HTTPS hammers an HTTP-only site with HTTPS requests every time i visit it because every website administrator should be using HTTPS, especially since one can get valid SSL certificates for free from Let’s Encrypt, and so i prefer to send them the message via their web logs.
uBlock Origin (uBO) will be used in its easy mode in order to block ads and prevent tracking by employing some of the many 3rd party static filter lists which it offers. Read the uBlock wiki sections pertaining to the easy mode to understand how to use it properly.
Once uBlock Origin is installed, click its toolbar icon to reveal the main pop-up interface, then click the little settings icon to reveal the Dashboard:
The first tab in the Dashboard is the Settings tab and here are the ones i recommend enabling:
- Hide placeholders of blocked elements (optional – if you are new to content blocking, you may not want to enable this so that you can get an indication as to what was blocked)
- enable all
- Default behavior:
- Block remote fonts
Blocking remote fonts will uglify quite a few websites. In such cases you can click the little ‘A’ icon on the uBO pop-up interface to allow remote fonts for the specific domain you’re visiting. Don’t forget to click the padlock icon to save your changes if you want them to be permanent.
Next we want to temporarily enable the advanced user option. Notice that a little gray gears icon appears next to it when it’s enabled and clicking it will display some advanced settings. I would suggest changing the value of
true. Although there is no guarantee, uBO will try to prevent tab loading until it is ready to handle the requests. This is perhaps especially useful when you exit Firefox with open tabs and have it set to restore your previous tabs on restart. After changing that setting, go back to the Dashboard and disable the ‘I am an advanced user’ option since we will be using uMatrix for all our dynamic filtering needs because it allows more granular control.
Click the settings button again on the uBlock Origin pop-up interface and select the Filter lists tab. Here are the settings and filter lists i recommend enabling:
- Auto-update filter lists
- Parse and enforce cosmetic filters
- Ignore generic cosmetic filters
- network/cosmetic filters
- My filters
- uBlock filters
- uBlock filters – Annoyances
- uBlock filters – Badware risks (enable if you run Windows)
- uBlock filters – Privacy
- uBlock filters – Resource abuse (blocks many cryptocurrency mining scripts)
- uBlock filters – Unbreak (un-breaks some websites that may be broken by other filter lists)
- Adblock Warning Removal List (hide annoying website messages warning about using an ad-blocker)
- Adguard Base Filters
- enable all lists
- Malware domains
- Malvertising filter list by Disconnect
- Malware Domain List
- Malware domains
- Adguard’s Annoyance List
- Dan Pollock’s hosts file
- Peter Lowe’s Ad and tracking server list
As of this writing you can find over 12 million filter lists on the FilterLists website, however i strongly advise to be very careful about what ones you add, if any. In my experience the default filter lists offered by uBO are quite sufficient and adding more may only slow things down, consume more resources and potentially break stuff.
All other settings for the remaining tabs can remain at their defaults.
SET THE SCOPE, LOCK THE LOCK!
Keep that in mind as you read this section.
You will likely be spending far more time with uMatrix (uM) than all the other add-ons here combined and, being it is one of the most important ones in the pile, it is vital you understand how to use it, so read the wiki because i’m not going to go into great detail here.
Once uMatrix is installed, click the toolbar button and then the title bar of the pop-up to open the Dashboard:
Following are the settings i recommend enabling:
On the Settings tab:
- Collapse placeholder of blacklisted elements (but not blocked elements, at least not until you become more comfortable with uM)
<noscript>tags when 1st-party scripts are blocked
Cookies and localStorage will be handled by Cookie AutoDelete, so there is no need to enable those settings in uM unless perhaps you want extra redundancy.
Note: As of this writing, IndexedDB storage cannot be managed by any Firefox add-on used to control storage. This is due to a shortcoming in the WebExtension API and therefor the only way to delete indexedDB storage is to delete the browser web cache. This is one reason to enable the timed cache cleaning option in uMatrix, however it is not the only reason. If you don’t want uMatrix to delete the web cache at timed intervals you can do so manually by accessing the Firefox history panel, or from the settings page (about:preferences#privacy), and selecting ‘Cache’ and ‘Offline Website Data’. The time range must be set to ‘Everything’. The other reason to clear the browser at regular intervals is because objects in the cache can be used to track you (as if there aren’t enough ways for evil corporations to invade your privacy, right?).
Regarding the spoofing of the browser User-Agent string, my research indicates this is essentially useless and can actually make fingerprinting the browser easier. There are other potential pitfalls with spoofing the UA as well.
On the ‘My rules’ tab, add the following to the ‘Temporary rules’ pane, then save and commit your change:
no-workers: * true
This will disable web workers which will prevent certain JS from running in the background, including many/all cryptocurrency mining scripts. If a page breaks as a result, you can enable web workers on a per-site basis from the uM pop-up by clicking the vertical 3 dot button. One resource this setting will break is 1st party or embedded videos from dailymotion.com. For example, if you visit this page and allow everything for all of the Dailymotion domains, the video will still not play until you allow web-workers.
On the ‘Assets’ tab, disable all of the host file filter lists, purge the caches and save your changes. It is better to use uBlock Origin to control the static filter lists since it offers many more of them by default.
If you’re using the Decentraleyes add-on you will need to add some rules to uMatrix which can be found on the Frequently asked questions page of the Decentraleyes repository. When adding the rules, be sure to remove any conflicting rules for the same domains if you have any (if you’re just starting out, you won’t).
uMatrix basic usage
When you first install uMatrix, it will allow all 1st party requests by default and we need to sledgehammer that, so load up 12bytes.org in a new tab and click the uM toolbar icon to display the main pop-up interface:
Because you have read the uMatrik wiki (you did, right?), you already know that YOU MUST REMEMBER TO SET THE SCOPE in which uM operates before making any changes. Failing to do this can break things unexpectedly and cause many headaches. You also know that any changes you make are temporary unless you save them. Since we first want to set some basic default filters that affect all websites, we need to change to the global scope. Start by opening 12bytes.org in a new tab and then switching to the global scope:
Once we’re operating in the global scope, i suggest setting up uMatrix like so:
This configuration will result in the following behavior:
- 1st party cookies will be allowed globally, though only for the site being visited
- CSS will be allowed globally, including 3rd party CSS
- Images will be allowed globally, including 3rd party images
- 1st party frames will be allowed globally, though only for the domain being visited
Unless you only want your changes to be temporary, always remember to click the padlock icon to save them.
Note that in the screenshots that follow, the 1st party cookies block in the global scope will not be green as in the one above due to an oversight on my part when i created the screenshots.
Now load up this post in a new tab. Does it look like something’s missing? Sure enough, if we open the uMatrix pop-up interface again, we see youtube-nocookie.com in the resource list which should tell you that there must be a YouTube video in that post which is being blocked. It also tells you exactly what was blocked, in this case a single frame:
If uMatrix is hiding the subdomains and you don’t see www.youtube-nocookie.com, click this little thing in the ‘all’ row and it will expand the list of domains:
In the screenshots above you can see we are operating in the local scope (12bytes.org). You will notice that i allowed all requests for the 1st party domain, 12bytes.org, because it’s my site and i trust it. You need not do the same and, actually, as a rule of thumb you should not do the same, nor is it required to get the video to play, at least not on 12bytes.org.
So we want to get that YouTube video working, but do we want to allow embedded YouTube videos for 12bytes.org only, or for all websites? This is what you need to be thinking any time you allow requests for 3rd party resource such as YouTube. Since you probably want to allow YouTube videos for all of the websites you visit, again we need to switch to the global scope and unblock the blocked frame for the youtube-nocookie.com domain and save our change:
Now when we refresh the post page, we might expect to see that YouTube video, but we don’t. Opening the uM pop-up again and switching to the global scope, we discover that allowing the frame for youtube-nocookie.com caused more stuff to show up:
Making sure we are working in the global scope, let’s unblock the blocked scripts for ytimg.com and youtube-nocookie.com. Make sure to save your changes:
Now when you reload the post page, everything should look good. We see the video frame and a nice image. Great. Click the play button and… nothing! Open the uM pop-up once more and we find that we need to allow XHR for the youtube-nocookie.com domain. You know what to do, so go ahead and make the change, making sure you’re working in the global scope and remembering to save your change afterwards. Refresh the post page again and click the play button on the video. It still doesn’t work! Again, open the uM pop-up and you’ll see another new domain has appeared, this time googlevideo.com (in case you didn’t know, Google owns YouTube). Again, make sure you’re working in the global scope and unblock those XHR requests for googlevideo.com and save your changes:
Now refresh the post page one last time and the video should play. If it does not, you messed something up and there’s a fair chance it’s because you made one or more changes in the wrong scope and tried to correct them. If you messed something up, open the uM Dashboard, click the ‘My rules’ tab and in the ‘Temporary rules’ pane, delete all of the rules you created related to YouTube videos and 12bytes.org, but be careful not to delete the default rules or the global rules we set up originally. To do this, select the rules and press your delete key, then click the ‘Save’ and ‘Commit’ buttons:
Once you’ve deleted those rules and committed the changes to the ‘Permanent rules’ list, go back to the first step and try again.
De-borking other websites is generally not as time consuming as it was to get embedded YouTube videos to play and is usually accomplished with a couple mouse clicks and a page refresh. Just remember to turn to uMatrix first when a website is busted. If it is blocking something it will let you know by displaying a badge on the toolbar icon. uBlock Origin will do the same, but it won’t usually be the cause of the problem since we offloaded its dynamic filtering to uMatrix. Again, make sure you read the uMatrix wiki.
Another way to get a website working very quickly is to check if any there any user created rule recipes are available for the site you’re visiting or the resource that you want to load. If there are, that little puzzle-piece icon on the uM pop-up interface will become active. Just be aware that the user created rule sets seem to be fairly lax in their restrictions and may allow more than you want to allow, however you can always adjust as necessary. If nothing else they can be very helpful in determining why a site does not function properly. By the way, you could have done this with 12bytes.org instead of letting me drag you through the mud :)
Lastly i want to stress the importance of both the uBlock Origin logger and the uMatrix logger which are invaluable tools for troubleshooting the tougher problems. You can get a better understanding of the uM logger by reading the documentation for the uBO logger since it is far more complete as of this writing, though some information is uBO specific. The uM logger is available in the Firefox sidebar in addition to a browser tab. This can be really handy because you can set it to display all of the network events it records and watch in real-time as you surf without having to swap tabs constantly.
Configuring the optional add-onsClick to expand...
Don’t touch my tabs!
Install it. Next.
There are very few options to set and the defaults are fine. You can import my Header Editor rules if you like:
The default settings are sufficient. You may have to whitelist sites that no longer work properly.
The default settings are sufficient. You will likely have to whitelist sites that no longer work properly which Skip Redirect makes easy to do since you can copy the last skipped URL by right-clicking its toolbar icon and then adding that URL or domain to the blacklist.
The default settings are sufficient. You may have to whitelist sites that no longer work properly.
FYI, apparently, long, long ago, some tech geek spelled ‘referrer’ with one ‘R’ and it stuck so don’t blame me for the misspelling (i make more than enough mistakes all by myself thank you).
THE END (finally)
While there are many more things you could do if you’re really serious about protecting your on-line privacy and browser security, i hope this guide has been of some use to the novice and intermediate web surfers at which it is aimed. I welcome any questions or comments you may have, just please leave them in the comment section below so others can benefit (you need not be logged on).
Lastly i want to thank all of the dedicated and skilled people who created, maintain and contribute to the ghacks-user.js repository, especially Thorin-Oakenpants (aka, ‘Pants’) and earthlng. This guide would never have been as comprehensive as it is without the benefit of that bunch of misfits :)
Further reading on this website
- Alternative Search Engines That Respect Your Privacy
- Encrypting DNS Traffic (and why you want to)
- Firefox/Mozilla-Based Browser Tech
- 2013 Mozilla Foundation Fed 990 Public Disclosure
- A comprehensive list of Firefox privacy and security settings
- About:config entries (mozillaZine)
- Anonymous Surfing with JonDoFox
- Browser storage limits and eviction criteria (MDN)
- Client-Side: WebRTC
- Cookies and fingerprinting: tracking methods clearly explained
- Cross-site scripting | Wikipedia
- Crypto Mining Scripts – Mycryptopedia
- CSS Is So Overpowered It Can Deanonymize Facebook Users
- DOM Storage guide (MDN)
- Edward Snowden | The Guardian
- Encryption Won’t Stop Your Internet Provider From Spying on You
- Evercookie (WordPress plug-in)
- Firefox 39: Tracking Protection for private browsing mode
- Firefox Browser Privacy Notice
- Firefox does not clear HSTS “cookies” when closed after a private session
- Firefox hardening
- Firefox Health Report
- Firefox/Privacy – ArchWiki
- Firefox user agent string reference (MDN)
- Flash Cookies explained
- How to block automatic connections that Firefox makes
- How to disconnect “search suggest”?
- How to import Tor Browser profile
- How to prevent HSTS tracking in Firefox
- How to stop Firefox from making automatic connections
- How do websites track users?
- HTML5 Browser Storage: the Past, Present and Future
- Improve online privacy by controlling referrer information
- Improve Your Privacy in the Age of Mass Surveillance – Internet of Things Darwin Award
- Internet Privacy – ISP Snooping and U.S. Surveillance Laws
- IP Check (JonDonym)
- IP Check: Next generation of website tracking analysis (JonDonym)
- IP/DNS Detect
- List of HTTP header fields (Wikipedia)
- Man-in-the-middle attack
- Means and Methods of Web Tracking: Its effects on privacy and ways to avoid getting tracked
- Mozilla and Telefónica Partner to Simplify Voice and Video Calls on the Web
- Mozilla Corporation (Wikipedia)
- Mozilla Foundation (Wikipedia)
- Mozilla networking preferences
- Mozilla re-negotiates Google multi-million dollar sugar-daddy deal
- Mozilla Revenue Tops $311 Million From Open-Source Technology (2012)
- Mozilla vs Google on user privacy: WebSockets
- Necko Predictive Network Actions
- Network Information API (MDN)
- Offline Data Storage
- OpenH264 Now in Firefox
- Privacy Tools – Encryption Against Global Mass Surveillance
- Profile-sync-daemon – ArchWiki
- Profiles – Where Firefox stores your bookmarks, passwords and other user data
- Quantifying the effects of Firefox’s Tracking Protection
- SPDY (Wikipedia)
- Tails – Privacy for anyone anywhere
- The FBI Is Classifying Its Tor Browser Exploit Because ‘National Security’
- The Mozilla Manifesto
- The Ultimate Guide to Using Google Analytics for Cross Device Optimisation
- Things to Know (and Potential Dangers) with Third-Party Scripts
- ToR Browser Bundle
- Tracking Protection on Firefox
- uBlock Wiki
- Warning: Your Browser Extensions Are Spying On You
- Web storage (Wikipedia)
- What Are Supercookies, and Why Are They Dangerous?
- What is First-Party Isolation in Firefox and what breaks if you enabled it
- Who Left Open the Cookie Jar? A Comprehensive Evaluation of Third-Party Cookie Policies
Revision historyClick to expand...
Scroll to the bottom if you want to see the latest changes.
- first publishing
- removed all Shim Storage add-on information since this functionality is duplicated in HTTP UserAgent cleaner.
- almost all of the documentation for HTTP UserAgent cleaner was heavily revised.
- various other edits and corrections.
- updated user.js file
- several other small updates and a few corrections
- updated user.js file
- switched uBlock versions since a new fork was created
- updated uBlock images and documentation
- added a “Current notices” section
- misc. other corrections/updates/edits
- updated and added more information for uBlock
- updated one HTTP UserAgent cleaner screen-shot
- misc. other corrections/updates/edits
- updated HTTP UserAgent cleaner information
- for HTTP UserAgent cleaner settings, the suggested settings were split into Suggested global setting for casual browsing and Suggested global setting for best protection.
- updated information for HTTP UserAgent cleaner
- updated user.js file
- minor updates to uBlock information
- misc. other minor changes
- updated some HTTP UserAgent cleaner information
- deleted information for 2 bugs regarding the X-Forward-For setting for HTTP UserAgent cleaner since they were not bugs
- misc. other minor changes
- updated information for HTTP UserAgent cleaner, including adding descriptions for the newly added features, Canvas and Fonts on the HTTP tab
- updated the user.js file
- updated some definitions of terms used in this document
- added some more resources
- updated the information for the Fonts filter on the HTTP tab of HTTP UserAgent cleaner
- updated HTTP UserAgent cleaner information to match changes in version 0.7.4.11a
- added Pure URL as a suggested add-on
- updated contents of the user.js file
- added and edited some information for HTTP UserAgent cleaner
- added more resources in the References section
- updated list of recommended filters for uBlock
- updated user.js file contents
- updated user.js file contents
- updated a few settings recommendations for HTTP UserAgent cleaner
- minor updates to user.js file contents
- added information for securing DNS traffic
- misc. minor updates
- switched to Raymond Hill’s version of uBlock
- updated uBlock filter information
- added Fetch information for new version of HTTP UserAgent cleaner
- updated user.js file contents
- misc. minor updates
- updated uBlock settings to match the current development version (0.9.9.2)
- misc. minor updates
- removed HTTP UserAgent cleaner since it is no longer being developed
- removed Self Destructing Cookies add-on since its functionality can be handled by uMatrix
- added uMatrix
- added more info for uMatrix and IP Config test results
- updated user.js file contents
- various other edits
- Minor edits for uMatrix usage text
- updated user.js file
- removed pcxFirefox as a suggested 3rd party build since i had display corruption issues with it
- updated user.js file contents
- updated user.js file contents
- updated guide information
- updated user.js file and added a revision history to the file
- updated user.js file
- updated user.js file
- minor grammar/spelling corrections
- corrected an error with pref ‘layout.css.devPixelsPerPx’ where the value was an integer instead of a string – this caused all prefs following it to be ignored
- set ‘browser.fixup.hide_user_pass’ back to its default value
- added ‘network.http.redirection-limit’
- added some basic information for configuring the Clean Links add-on
- corrected ‘plugin.scan.*’ values to be strings
- added bogus preferences in the user.js file at the end of each section for troubleshooting potential loading problems
- changed the name of the troubleshooting/bogus preference to
12bytes.org-user-js-settingsand added values to indicate the point at which the file stopped loading – a huge thanks to commenter ‘Pants’ for suggesting the troubleshooting preference and also for suggesting a far better way of implementing it than what i had done (by the way, ‘Pants’ is the author of the user.js config file used in the ‘ghacks’ article, A comprehensive list of Firefox privacy and security settings by Martin Brinkmann, so i’m very glad to have his input here)
- removed duplicate preferences in use.js file (see change-log in the file for details)
- removed Extension Defender from the list of recommended add-ons since it’s home page is gone and the code hasn’t been updated in two years
- updated user.js file
- switched to using Pants’ config v0.11 and mostly just appending my settings to the end of his – because this is a major update, no history of changes to individual preferences will be published
- published my user.js on GitHub which was forked from Pants’ code
- removed my user.js code from this page and linked to it on the GitHub page instead
- changed my versioning scheme to match Pants’ where the user.js version coincides with the version of Firefox it was developed for, so v51r1 would equate to version 51.x of Firefox and the r1 signifies the revision, in this case the first revision
- updated user.js to include v51 of Pants’ config – no preference changes so far as i know, just added/removed/changed comments
- updated text in user.js section to account for the new changes
- changes to comments and troubleshooting preference names and values, other minor changes
- updated user.js to version 51r2 – see
the GitHub pagefor the change-log
- updated info here regarding the user custom preferences section of user.js
- deleted the GitHub repository which i forked from Pants’ ‘ghacks’ repository and created a new repository which does not include his code
- some changes to user.js
- some major editing of this document mostly in regard to the creation and changes of the GitHub repositories
- rewrote and updated much of the content pertaining to uMatrix
- added section “Removing system add-ons”
- added section “Sanitizing the default search engine plugins”
- added some add-ons to the recommended section
- misc. minor edits
- i didn’t keep track of all the changes and many were made – you’ll have to re-read the guide :)
- added section “A special note about cryptocurrency miners”
- added more info about IndexDB storage in the “Terminology” and “uMatrix configuration” sections.
- added to the list of recommended add-ons
- updated some content to reflect the current state of Firefox and WebExtensions
- misc. minor edits
- added a link to my post about the Firefox add-on, Looking Glass
- misc. minor edits
- minor edits
- removed cryptocurrency miner section
- removed information about the OpenH264 Video Codec plug-in since it seems Firefox is no longer shipping it, at least not on Linux
- removed the Load from Cache add-on
- removed some information about uMatrix since uBlock Origin covers most everything uMatrix does and is better suited for removing advertisements, plus it’s a much more active project.
- updated some information
- note that many more updates will occur in the next days, so i would suggest waiting until they are published before following this guide
- rewrote most of this guide, so if you read it before, read it again :)
- added the section ‘Firefox profile in RAM’
- misc. other minor edits
- lots of clarifications and polishing, added several resources
- added uMatrix to the add-on pile again
- added the uMatrix sections of this document
- removed info about running uBlock in advanced mode since we’re using uMatrix for dynamic filtering instead
- several minor edits
- add Cookie AutoDelete as a highly recommended add-on and updated configuration information for uMatrix to allow 1st party cookies by default
- removed information about the Forget Me Not add-on
- added information about First Party Isolation
- added rule to uM to prevent web workers
- added information about the uBO and uM logging functions
- corrected some mistakes
- added info about using the user created rule sets for uMatrix, as well correcting some mistakes and clarifying other uM info
- added info about HSTS tracking
- minor edits
- added more info to the uMatrix section, particularly about indexedDB storage
- minor edits
- clarified much information regarding the user.js files as well as other parts
- added more info about browser fingerprinting
- added more detail regarding system add-ons
- added a user-overrides.js template
- updated Header Editor rules download
- added several more 3rd party resources
- misc. minor edits