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What’s in the latest Firefox? Script stand-ins help sites fend off anti-tracking assaults

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Mozilla on Tuesday updated Firefox to version 87, adding a new privacy feature designed to automatically fix websites impaired by the browser’s aggressive anti-tracking defenses.

The organization’s security engineers also patched eight vulnerabilities, only two of which were labeled as “High,” Firefox’s second-most-serious label. It was the second version of Firefox without a top-ranked “Critical” bug.

Firefox 87 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users can relaunch the browser to install the latest version. To manually update on Windows, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” (On macOS, “About Firefox” can be found under the “Firefox” menu.) The resulting page or pop-up shows that the browser is already up to date or displays the refresh process.

Mozilla upgrades Firefox every four weeks; the last refresh was on Feb. 23.

Stand-in scripts mitigate anti-tracking problems

“SmartBlock” is easily the most significant addition to Firefox 87.

“Introducing a policy that outright blocks trackers on the web inevitably risks blocking components that are essential for some websites to function properly,” Thomas Wisniewski, web compatibility engineer, said in a March 22 post to the Mozilla security blog. “This can result in images not appearing, features not working, poor performance, or even the entire page not loading at all.”

Mozilla has been clear about the trade-offs made when anti-tracking defenses are dialed up to 11: The company has regularly warned users that setting Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection to “Strict,” the most aggressive option, “may cause some websites to not display content or work correctly.”

SmartBlock looks to address this downside by sliding dummy scripts into sites to replace those blocked by the tracking defenses. Those scripts, Wisniewski contended “behave just enough like the original ones to make sure that the website works properly.” The stand-in scripts thus let the previously-broken sites load properly — blocked scripts sometimes make websites pause or slow rendering — and function as they would if they’d not been touched.

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