As a matter of principle, we’ve built Firefox to work without collecting information about the people who use it and their browsing habits. Operating in this way is the right thing to do, but it makes it hard to infer what Firefox users do and want so that we can make improvements to the browser and its features. We need this information to compete effectively, but we have to do it in a way that respects our users’ privacy. That is why experimentation in our pre-release channels like Nightly, Beta and Developer Edition is so critical.
Release only gives us partial insight; pre-release helps with the bigger picture.
One outcome of the unified telemetry project that we finished last September was to streamline data collection as it takes place in the different channels of Firefox. As part of that project, we created four categories of data: Category 1 “technical data”, Category 2 “interaction data”, Category 3 “web activity data”, and Category 4 “highly sensitive data” which includes information that can identify a person. These categories apply to all Firefox data collection including telemetry (data that Firefox sends Mozilla by default) and Shield Studies (a Mozilla program to test rough features and ideas on small numbers of Firefox users).
The release channel of Firefox that hundreds of millions of people use sends us Category 1 and 2 technical and interaction data by default. The latter is especially useful so that we can understand how people interact with menus, prompts, features, and core browser functions. Because this telemetry data is limited, it is not enough to make fully informed decisions about product changes.
This is why we rely on our pre-release channels to collect, when necessary, additional Category 3 web activity data or run studies on particular features with unique privacy properties. Gathering this information is critical so that we can understand the real-world impact of new ideas and technologies on a limited audience before deploying to all Firefox users.
Even when we collect or share data in pre-release, privacy comes first.
Any new Firefox data collection must go through a rigorous process. The lean data practices that we follow mean that we minimize collection, secure data, limit data sharing, clearly explain what we’re doing, and provide user controls. For example, Shield Studies are controlled weekly Firefox studies that answer specific questions using the minimum amount of data needed on the smallest relevant sample size. Every study is reviewed and signed off by a data scientist, a QA engineer, and a Firefox Peer. The majority of studies stay within Category 1 and Category 2 data; for anything sensitive, even in pre-release, additional sign-off by our Legal and Trust teams are required.
We don’t compromise our principles when we work with partners. Privacy and security threats on the web are evolving and so are we to protect our users. This includes partnering with others to provide expertise that we don’t have. We require partners who works with us to uphold the same privacy and accountability standards we’ve set for ourselves.
The Firefox Privacy Notice has always said that pre-release has different privacy characteristics, but we are going to update this to clarify what that means. We’ll do the same on the landing pages for pre-release, because anyone who is uncomfortable with additional data collection or sharing should instead download the release version of Firefox.
We are deeply grateful to our community of pre-release users who put up with unstable builds, report issues, and contribute much needed data. Ultimately, it is the insights from our most passionate users and advocates in pre-release that allow us to offer a better product to all users, with less data collection in the long run.
Janne Granström wrote on