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What's in the latest Firefox update? Mozilla gives the gas, lays on new privacy options

Mozilla this week shipped Firefox 67 for Windows, macOS and Linux with performance improvements that - when added to improvements that over the past year - make the browser 80% faster, according to the company.

Other changes to Firefox that surfaced in version 66 ranged from customized private browsing sessions - such as letting a user enable add-ons while in so-called "porn mode" - to running multiple builds at the same time, a Firefox first.

Security engineers also patched 21 vulnerabilities, two of them labeled "Critical," Mozilla's most serious threat rating. "We presume that with enough effort that some of these could be exploited to run arbitrary code," Mozilla reported. More than half the bugs - 11 all told - were ranked as "High," one step below Critical.

Firefox 67, which can be downloaded from Mozilla's site, updates in the background, so most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, 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." The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or explains the refresh process.

Mozilla updates Firefox every six to eight weeks; the last time it upgraded the browser, to version 66, was March 19.

Faster, says Mozilla

Doubling down, really for the first time, on performance since the November 2017 launch of a revamped Firefox - one slapped with the nameplate "Quantum," which never caught on - Mozilla touted new in-code prioritizations for the faster painting of pages.

"Firefox is better at performing tasks at the optimal time," Marissa Wood, the recently appointed vice president of product, wrote in a post to a company blog, referring to the post-change version 67.

Wood cited several modifications that spurred Firefox's speed, notably pushing the least-used features down the list so that they would be available only after a page has been drawn. "This includes prioritiz[ing] scripts for things you need first while delaying others to help make the main scripts for Instagram, Amazon and Google searches execute 40-80% faster," Wood said. Elsewhere in the browser, idle tabs will now be suspended when available memory falls under 400MB; the contents of those tabs are reloaded if or when a user clicks back in.

Browser makers have long competed on speed. For a long while, however, incremental improvements have been hard to demonstrate, especially to desktop users typically riding a high-bandwidth wave, where vagaries in the connection may be more damaging to speed than any coding decision.

More recently, some browser developers have struck out all online ads - as does Brave, for instance - then trumpeted the obvious page-painting speed increases. Naturally, a page will display faster when less content is drawn; the same result could be achieved by barring all non-ad content.

It's unclear whether Mozilla's speed pitch will make a difference in its usage but there was little reason not to try; only last month did Firefox climb back to double digits in user share after lingering at 9% for nearly a year.

Also, more privacy

The other angle Wood touted on Firefox 67 is one of Mozilla's cornerstones. "Privacy has always been core to Mozilla's mission," she acknowledged. After ticking off several past accomplishments in the arena, Wood highlighted additions that include options for blocking "digital fingerprinting" - an umbrella term for a slew of more-than-cookies tracking techniques to follow users as they browse - and unauthorized crypto-mining. 
 The new settings will add to those already in place since the enhanced anti-tracking initiative kicked off last fall with Firefox 62. They're tucked under the "Custom" portion of "Content Blocking" within the "Privacy & Security" pane of Preferences (macOS) or Options (Windows).

(Note: Not everyone will see the "Cryptominers" and "Fingerprinters" options immediately; Mozilla typically rolls out such improvements in stages to reduce problems if bugs surface. Computerworld found that only half its copies of Firefox offered the new options.)

Also under the Privacy label, Firefox 67 gives more control to users operating in Private Browsing, the mode that doesn't record sites visited or save cookies for easier return visits. "Based on user feedback, we're giving more controls for you to get the most out of [your] Private Browsing experience," Wood said.

That amounted to options for enabling add-ons while using the mode and saving passwords while in Private Browsing. Traditionally, extensions have been barred as possible data leakers - not just in Firefox but in rivals' own privacy modes - and as for passwords, well, saving those used in the mode makes as little sense as saving sites seen.

Those changes seem contrary to the concept of a privacy mode, but as they're opt-in, they can be disregarded if desired. Mozilla justified their appearance with the line, "To bust a myth, private browsing doesn't make you completely invisible on the internet."

Elsewhere in Firefox 67, the version is the first to allow side-by-side installs of the browser. Playing to the pre-release crowd - those who would want to run, for instance, both Developer Edition and Beta for site testing purposes, or the stable release along with Beta to see what's coming - the enhancement was broached back in January and promised for this edition.

The next version of the browser, Firefox 68, should release July 9.