Keep Facebook at Bay: Firefox Profiles and Containers

Facebook’s now-notorious role in leveraging the data of its users has had me thinking about the so-called digital exhaust everyone leaves.  Facebook’s an easy target but there are others, like Google’s Doubleclick, that are tracking you across the web.  You don’t need to be a user of a platform to be monetized by it.  I use a trio of Firefox extensions – uBlock origin, Ghostery, and Noscript – to try to minimize the ability of these platforms to track me without my knowing about it.

One reason I like something that impacts all my use is that you never know when the tracking is going happen.  Case in point:  my public library has its web site hosted by Ebsco.  Ebsco collects data using both normal Google Analytics and Doublelick for Publishers, as well as a bunch of app-based third-party trackers.  I didn’t know about Doubleclick until I landed on the public library site and saw that NoScript was asking me how to handle some javascripts – and Doubleclick was already in my banned list.  I typically only use temporarily trusted or untrusted.  Untrusted is a permanent setting, but I’ll be prompted again, the next time I open my browser, for anything that was temporarily trusted.

Dropdown list of sites to allow or block using Noscript

Contain Facebook

I was curious when I saw Mozilla’s blog announcing its Facebook Container, a customized version of the multi-container extension that came out late last year.  The container label is a bit confusing because container is already a term of art for technology users.  But it gives an option for people who want to segment their Facebook use from the other activities in their browser.

It will come as no surprise that a person who’s avatar on all his social media accounts is a fake picture of him in sunglasses and partially covered face is not active as himself on Facebook.  So I don’t have much use for a Facebook container, since it wouldn’t get any use.  For the curious, when I log on to my not-me Facebook account, I use a virtual Linux computer on VirtualBox and a VPN.  I’m not untraceable, but I’m obfuscated.

All the major browsers have privacy or incognito tabs or windows you can open, but those are more about hiding information on your own computer.  If you open an incognito window and go to a web site, you’re still leaving analytics information on that server even if your local web browser won’t show it in your history.

But the container concept appeals to me for lots of other purposes.  I can see a law firm staff person who is doing research about someone, especially oppositing parties or their witnesses, and not wanting to have your work impact other tools you use.  The container appears to create a silo around what you’re doing, so that activity in one container won’t necessarily impact that in another. It’s kind of like the mess Google personalized search can leave a researcher; the results start to skew towards personalization, rather than the entire body of results.  At the same time, the experience isn’t as controlled as an incognito tab.

Or maybe you’re a solo and you have personal accounts open during the day and want to have them stay separate from work-related ones.  There are apps that allow you to flip back and forth in that way on mobile devices but it may not be as easy on the desktop or just within the web browser.

Or Lower Your Profile

What I am finding with the containers, though, is that while they create tab-based silos, they share the extension settings across the browser.  For example, if I open Facebook in a container tab separate from my current tab, it still uses the same NoScript extension settings: I can’t block Facebook.com using Noscript in one container and allow it in another.

It makes me wonder if reverting to Firefox profiles would be a better option.  Hitting your Windows key, typing run and then clicking the Run app, will enable you to type firefox -p to start the Profile Manager.  Totally obvious.

Also a bit of a pain.  You can run multiple profiles in Chrome as well.  But on Firefox for sure, and I’m pretty certain on Chrome, you can only be in one profile at a time.  That’s great for keeping everything separate, but it defeats the ability to do the toggling back and forth that containers allow.

Still from the Truman Show film, showing Truman sailing until he reaches the edge of the TV studio
Truman sails to the world’s end.

I think I’ll end up with one profile and no containers.  At the end of the day, I am definitely in sync with #DeleteFacebook.  Community spaces aren’t the closed gardens of large technology companies, even if Facebook users forget that, just like Truman’s world, if you reach out far enough, there’s a wall surrounding your activity.  Tendrils are running out from under those walls, and if I can opt out, I’ll do so and use Noscript and other tools to block them.  But if it’s necessary to use one of these sites, using either containers or profiles could help to isolate what they’re able to gather.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.