Firefox 14 encrypts Google search, but admen can still strip-search you

Referrer strings go naked for marketeers

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Updated Mozilla has rolled out Firefox 14, which automatically encrypts web searches through Google, but the new release leaves an important back door open to advertisers.

The move also quietly undermines Mozilla’s crusade in the past years on maintaining the privacy of netizens by using Do-Not-Track as a plea to websites not to track users' searches.

Firefox 14 now sets HTTPS Google as its search default, which Mozilla boasts shields its users from network snoopers and Wi-Fi hackers sniffing up search data.

The idea is you’ll have both anonymity of search and security of transaction while surfing over your chai double-shot latte over at Starbucks.

Announcing support for HTTPS back in May, Mozilla said that using HTTPS helps "providers like Google remove information from the referrer string". The referrer is an HTTP header field transmitted between the browser and the web page that tells the website which earlier pages the user has visited.

However, what Mozilla didn’t flag up today or back in May is the fact that if you happen to click on an ad on a page you hit then the encryption is removed and advertisers can see who you are and where you’ve been.

The justification given by Google for this leak in its secure search is the inevitable ability to let advertisers server up more accurately targeted ads. Google says:

If you click on an ad on the results page, your browser will send an unencrypted referrer that includes your query to the advertiser’s site. This provides a mechanism to the advertiser so that the advertiser can improve the relevancy of the ads that are presented to you. If you are concerned about referrer information being sent without encryption to the website you clicked on, we recommend using our existing encrypted search service at https://encrypted.google.com. Many web browsers also provide the ability to disable referrers as well.

It’s unsurprising that Google would leave a backdoor open to the advertisers whose dollars keep Google afloat and upon whom its business depends.

Admen's backlash

Announcing the widespread rollout of HTTPS search in October 2011, Google earned the enmity of in-bound marketing types whose jobs got harder. “Dear Google: this is war” shouted Ian Lurie, founder and chief executive of Google Analytics partner Potent last year.

“You're going to hide a sizable chunk of referring organic keyword data. That's information I need to justify your value to my clients: Once you shut down organic search data from 'signed in' users, I lose any accurate picture of traffic generated by organic Google rankings,” Lurie said here.

The Chocolate Factory has also dragged its feet on Do-Not-Track in its browser, Chrome, something Mozilla was the first to adopt with Firefox.

Firefox 5 was the first browser to implement the Do-Not-Track feature, a HTTP header transmitted with every HTTP request to alert sites and ads networks that the user doesn’t want to be tracked – that the log of where they’ve been is kept closed.

It was Google and Microsoft who prevaricated, offering opt-out and tracking-protection lists respectively. With a growing industry and US political consensus around DNT, though, Google Chrome now offerss a DNT button, while IE 10 will enable DNT by default, much to the chagrin of direct marketers who slammed the move – saying it “threatens to undermine that balance, limiting the availability and diversity of internet content and services for consumers".

The surprise, as Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan notes here, is that long-time privacy crusader Mozilla hasn’t been more up front in letting Firefox users know that Google HTTPS search allows advertisers to see the unencrypted history of their searches.

According to Mozilla here:

Encrypting our users’ searches is our next step into giving users better control over their data online. Enabling HTTPS for Google searches helps Firefox users maintain better control over who sees things they search for — queries that are often sensitive. We’re excited to see this improvement in our upcoming releases now that we, with Google’s help, have been able to provide our users a secure and responsive secure search.

Defending the move, and responding to Sullivan here, Mozilla’s Firefox director Asa Dotzler said:

Danny, you misunderstand what SSL search is trying to accomplish. We’ve made the connection between the user and Google secure from snooping. That’s what SSL does and that’s why we’ve implemented it. Google can do what ever it wants with the data once it gets it, but the bad guys sniffing your wi-fi connection cannot get at your information.

Mozilla’s position seems clear: it’s buying into the wire-line encryption. What happens at the end point is up to Google – including stripping your searches of privacy.

We contacted Mozilla to see whether this is the situation and whether Mozilla sees a conflict between HTTPS secure search and its stance on DNT.

Since publishing this piece, Mozilla responded with this statement:

"Every site has a responsibility to handle user data with care and integrity. Using HTTPS for search in Firefox is an important privacy feature that protects sensitive search data from eavesdropping but, if you don't trust the site receiving that data to handle it properly, no client-side technology can restore that trust.

When we introduced Do Not Track last year, it was based on the belief that most sites do value the trust of their users, and want to respect the choices their users make. We can't force that respect with technology but we've been delighted to see how many people, and how many sites, believe as we do." ®

This article has been updated to include a statement from Mozilla.

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