The service, whose launch in beta this week sparked significant interest, also collects more user data than leading VPN services. It did however impress in initial network testing.
The extension for the Firefox desktop browser requires users to be logged into a Firefox account and works by encrypting traffic and routing it through its partner Cloudflare’s network.
Firefox Private Network users should prepare themselves to be disappointed when trying to access blocked content as the Cloudflare privacy notice is blunt on the subject.
“Avoidance of geographical restrictions on content access is explicitly not a goal.”
It goes on to state that should the authorities request that Cloudflare block online content, the company would “exhaust its legal remedies” but would otherwise ultimately comply.
The same privacy notice also outlines the service’s logging policy, which comprehensively scoops up a wide spectrum of session metadata.
Cloudflare logs the following:
- your IP address
- the destination IP address
- source port
- destination port
- a token provided by Mozilla that indicates that you are a Firefox Private Network user
This compares unfavorably with leading VPN services, who have over time streamlined their logging policies to avoid collecting source IP addresses for example.
Date-only stamps are also preferable to timestamps, while logging of source and destination ports is unnecessary. The unique token also feels like overkill.
It’s positive that logs are wiped after 24 hours, however there is of course the loophole provided by the caveat “unless necessary for its security or legal obligations”, which is unsettlingly vague.
Another layer of data collection that’s less typical for VPN services is outlined in the telemetry documentation.
Mozilla tracks almost every possible interaction with the service, automatically recording and sending home anything from a list of 22 predefined actions.
These “events” include whether:
- the settings menu is accessed
- the extension is turned on or off
- user is abusing the service (abuse is not defined yet but this sets off alarm bells)
Mozilla deserves credit for transparency in linking to this information from the Firefox Private Network page, however while this practice is quite common with mainstream web products, especially those in beta, it doesn’t sit comfortably with the privacy expectations of a VPN-like product.
Other data collection
Firefox Private Network also requires a Firefox Account, which hands Mozilla your email address, locale, and IP address.
On its own, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning as it’s industry-standard. Yet the fact that it necessitates an authentication process with Cloudflare, combined with all of the other privacy-unfriendly issues outlined above, adds a little more weight to the conviction that this product hasn’t been designed fully privacy-first.
Although Firefox Private Network will likely evolve into a paid service, it’s currently free.
And compared to most free VPN services, it performs very well. Our initial testing showed no evidence of DNS leaks, a critical flaw with many free VPN apps. It even outshone much of the paid competition by being compatible with IPv6.
WebRTC leaks aren’t a problem either but only because Firefox Private Network ducks the issue completely. It only works over TCP, which means being unable to use in-browser video conferencing and VOIP services while it’s switched on. That includes the following:
- Google Hangouts
While it’s an inconvenience, this is a much better approach than simply leaking in the manner of so many free – and even paid – VPN services.
It’s a welcome development to see a well-respected organization like Mozilla enter the market with a VPN-like product. It’s even more encouraging that they aren’t perpetuating the dangerous fallacy that high-performance, secure and private VPN networks can be operated without paying customers.
There will always be a need for free VPN services but it’s a relief that Mozilla aren’t contributing to the current race to the bottom with all its attendant risks.
That said, let’s hope that once it launches fully, the logging is dialled back to the bare minimum and the telemetry ditched completely.
And if Firefox Private Network 1.0 is to come with a price tag and compete with other more fully-featured VPN services then Mozilla their current product offering is strong enough when it comes to real privacy and censorship.