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Associate Editor

Mozilla at Work on Mobile Do Not Track

Mar 23, 20123 mins
Data and Information SecurityMobile SecurityMozilla

The Boot to Gecko project aims to build convenient Do Not Track settings into an open-source mobile operating system.

You can opt out of being tracked online by using a Web browser with support for Do Not Track, a privacy feature that lets you tell supporting websites that you don’t want to be tracked by third parties (advertisers, marketing firms, and the like). It’s like putting yourself on an online version of the Do Not Call list.

Now Mozilla is developing an open-source operating system for smartphones and tablets that supports Do Not Track from the ground up. Code-named Boot to Gecko (B2G), this Linux-based mobile OS is designed to bring the (comparatively) rigorous privacy standards of the World Wide Web to smartphones and tablets.

Mozilla’s Open Web Devices platform (B2G’s technical name) is still in an early stage of development, and no firm release date exists yet, though Mozilla is seeking partnerships with phone manufacturers. Mozilla has already cut a deal with Spanish telecom provider Telefonica to bring a B2G device to market before the end of the year. If you want to test B2G now, you must root your Android phone and manually flash B2G to your device–but don’t try to do this unless you’re comfortable tinkering with (and maybe breaking) your phone.

A Simpler Opt-Out Process

The Do Not Track options in the Boot to Gecko operating system make opting out simpler. If your smartphone or tablet runs Boot to Gecko, you’ll be able to set Do Not Track preferences from the settings menu, and your device will broadcast your preferences to every app you open. This will help you maintain personal privacy while browsing websites, and it may prevent other apps from harvesting your personal data, if their developers update them to respect the Do Not Track option.

Boot to Gecko is heavily Web-centric: All B2G apps live online, and you access them directly instead of downloading them from an app store like the Android Market. Making Boot to Gecko open-source and letting it run apps from any developer should improve user privacy. Just as many websites maintain consumer-friendly privacy practices to keep users happy, Mozilla and other developers will create consumer-friendly apps in order to compete in the open market.

“In many existing smartphone systems, security is an afterthought and the primary means of security is the fact that a single silo owner controls and ‘reviews’ all apps,” says Andreas Gal, director of research and development at Mozilla. “But in the world of the Web, there is no central authority, so we have to build privacy and security into the very basic architecture [of Boot to Gecko] from the start.”

Even better, the Boot to Gecko project is open to the public. “All aspects of the design and implementation of B2G are open, including privacy and security,” Gal says. “Everyone can participate and review our work, and our every technical decision takes place in the public eye.”

Unfortunately, Boot to Gecko can do no more than broadcast your preferences with regard to being tracked. Since Do Not Track is a voluntary program based on the honor system, there is no mechanism for ensuring that the apps you access and the sites you visit will honor your request for privacy. Until we see federal legislation that requires companies to respect and comply with Do Not Track requests from consumers (similar to California’s proposed Do Not Track law), you have no guarantee that your favorite apps and websites won’t track your habits and breach your privacy. But plenty of free software for protecting your privacy is available online, so practice safe surfing and don’t download apps from untrustworthy sources.