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Firefox first browser to encrypt Google search by default

Beats Chrome to the punch.

Mozilla is expected within in months to begin encrypting Google searches by default in its Firefox browser, according to security and privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian.

The change would bring Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protection to searches through the browser on its primary search engine partner, Google.

It may be delivered in a "few weeks" if it successfully passes through Mozilla’s Firefox release cycles, Auruora and Beta -- the two stages prior to a public release, senior Firefox engineering director told Computerworld US.

It would mean that users' search query information will be shielded from ISPs and governments that use Deep Pack Inspection technology to monitor or censor their citizens’ searches, Soghoian said.

It would also prevent search query data that websites would capture after a user visits a site if the feature was not implemented.

The addition of default HTTPS to Firefox Google searches is the culmination of months of debate in the search engine optimisation community, notes Soghoian, after Google in October last year began using HTTPS by default -- but only for searches by Google account holders who were signed in. That change meant websites would no longer receive “referrer” data that tells website operators, such as publishers, what people searched for to arrive at the site, according to Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan.

Because the default privacy setting was only applied to users signed in to Google, it was estimated at the time there would only be a loss around two per cent of referrer data, Sullivan wrote earlier. Google had reportedly estimated a referral data loss of less than 10 per cent. But if the default setting makes it to Firefox, which represents about a quarter of the world’s browser users, it’s likely now to have a massive impact. “This is a big deal for the 25 per cent or so of Internet users who use Firefox to browse the web, bringing major improvements in privacy and security,” said Soghoian, who noted Firefox beat Google’s Chrome to the first implementation.

Chrome, incidentally, became the world’s most popular browser , albeit for one day last Sunday, according to analytics firm, StatCounter -- a company whose methodology Microsoft strongly disagrees with on the basis that post-Chrome 13 pre-renders web pages and StatCounter’s omits "Geoweighting" or taking in to account real world populations in its figures.

“Just as it showed strong privacy leadership by being the first browser to embrace Do Not Track, Mozilla is similarly showing its users that privacy is a priority by being the first to embrace HTTPS search by default. For Mozilla, this is a clear win,” said Soghoian.

“Hopefully, (the Chrome team) will soon follow Mozilla's lead by protecting their users with HTTPS search by default,” he adds, pointing out Chrome’s security configurations are actually at the behest of Google’s search engineers.

The question now is when, under Mozilla’s near monthly Firefox release update cycle, the feature will be included.

"If no issues are uncovered, it will move through our Aurora and Beta release channels before eventually shipping to all our Firefox users. This will include migrating the changes to our non-English version of Firefox, as well," Firefox’s Nightingale told Computerworld US.

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