Disabling Private Browsing

Another very common feedback request in Hendrix is the ability to disable Private Browsing:

How can i put a password on private browsing so my kids can’t access it. I usually control what they do on the internet, but with private browsing none of the ‘parental guidance’ passwords work. In summary, private browing is a stupid idea and should be scrapped. I’m sure many parents will agree.

I do NOT like that the private browsing option cannot be disabled. I want to view my children’s history. Please let me know how to disable it or turn it off. Other wise, I need a new browser.

Firefox needs to include the ability to temporarily disable the Private Browsing feature. I (like many other parents) want the ability to browse in private, but don’t want the same privilege for my children. A simple password to turn the feature on and off would solve the problem.

This is a no-brainer, guys. I’ve seen people discussing this elsewhere on the net, so I know there’s significant demand for this ability. Not including it implies a disregard for the welfare of our kids and for your users’ desire for flexibility in our favorite browser.

I and many parents do NOT want private browsing as an option for our children using the computers. Nor should we have to navigate complicated instructions or know programming in order to circumvent problems. I have parental controls. Why can’t private browsing just be an add-in feature???

I have read other complaints online for almost a year and am about to remove Firefox from all family computers ONLY due to this problem. If you care what your consumers think, you should fix this.

Private browsing capability should not be available by default. At the least, it should be manageable down to the user level with the capability of disabling it for all users.

I have been a huge Firefox fan since 2004, but will gladly change browsers and stop recommending Firefox to my family, friends, and colleagues.

for purposes of accountability for myself and family members, I would like if the private browsing option could be removed, or at the least, be made an administrative option rather than being available for any user.

Parents are concerned that their children will not obey their house rules for use of the Internet, and they will have no method of detecting this. And, as that last quote shows, some adults want the function disabled for personal accountability to others.

Now, I agree there is no substitute for a good relationship between parent and child – in an ideal world, children would obey their parents and parents would not exasperate their children. But I firmly believe that parents are responsible for their children, and that includes controlling what they see and hear if the parents judge that it’s in their best interests. Is there any parent who has a child for whom they have never done this?

Now of course in many cases it is possible to get around the disabling of Private Browsing – you could have an alternative browser on a USB stick, or clear the entire history, or just delete places.sqlite. But each of those actions leaves some evidence. Whereas Private Browsing mode is quick to start, quick to stop, and is designed specifically to leave no evidence. So I think there is value in people being able to disable it.

At the moment, for those who want to disable it, the solution circulating in the Forums is to delete nsPrivateBrowsingService.js, which is clearly sub-optimal.

Does anyone know of an addon which can significantly raise the bar here, by disabling easy access to Private Browsing and history deletion?

30 thoughts on “Disabling Private Browsing

  1. If Private Browsing defeats you then you’ve already lost. You can manually delete pages from the history quite easily. And besides, what’s the difference between “delete the last hour of history” and “enter private browsing for an hour”? Also, what evidence is left from a browser in an USB stick?

    Next thing you know people will ask for the ability to disable any history deletion (good luck with that!)

    These people don’t know what they’re talking about, their problem can’t be fixed from within Firefox. Any “solution” would be trivial to circumvent. And I cannot conceive how you would even go abut implementing such an option (where do you put the switch?)

    Also, funny about the threats of switching browsers. Which browser doesn’t do private browsing these days?

    I hope their kids figure out how to fool them, they deserve it.

  2. fsdg: Indeed, an extension which disabled Private Browsing would also need to disable deletion of history. Or, at least, remove all UI entry points to it. Yes, they might be able to delete the entire thing, but that leaves a load of evidence (“Where did our browser history go?”)

    As for where you put the switch, there are ways on Windows of making changing certain files admin-only. Firefox used to support “global extensions” which you needed to be an admin to install. I’m sure some mechanism could be devised which required an admin password to remove.

    The evidence left from a browser on a USB stick is the browser on the USB stick. “What’s that you have in your hand?” “Er, nothing…” etc.

    I hope their kids figure out how to fool them, they deserve it.

    Do you have children? If so, how would you feel about someone showing them some hardcore porn? Surely you can’t object – after all, you’ve just said that parents controlling their children’s access to such things is wrong…

  3. Spying on your children is evil. If you don’t trust your children to use the computer responsibly, you should be supervising them yourself (and not spying on them afterwards).

    You wouldn’t install a camera inside your child’s bedroom or in the toilet either, would you?

  4. Spying on your children is evil.

    a) Says who? And who made them king?

    b) Plenty of parents put baby monitors (i.e. microphones) in their children’s bedrooms. I’m sure a few have video too.

    c) Spying is when you watch what someone is doing without telling them. I would expect parents to tell their kids that they will be looking at where they go.

    d) But actually, even if they didn’t, that would be fine with me. A parent-child relationship is not like the relationship between two unrelated adults.

  5. I’d frame the discussion differently. IMHO, different people should you different accounts at the Operating System level. Now the issue is for the parent (the admin) to have different rights (e.g. private mode enabled) while other accounts (children) don’t have such privileges.

    Now a part of the issue is that in many cases kids are more computer-savvy than their parents :-) (so good luck with that!)


  6. > how would you feel about someone showing them
    Well, if all I do to prevent it is add some obfuscation on a privilege level they fully control, I guess I was asking for it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the idea. But adding crap to Firefox is not the way to do it. The way to do it is with a system-wide monitor that works at the DNS and TCP levels. If you place the defenses in the end-user account, it’s useless.

    Easy example: it you allow downloads at all, I can mail to myself a portable version of any browser which doesn’t obey this (including old versions of fx), with an unsuspecting file name. All you’d see in the history would be some visits to gmail/hotmail and a download of some attached file (these history traces aren’t enough to identify the message IIRC). I could even run both at the same time!

    Another example: extensions run in general with full privileges, so somebody could create a new extension which re-enables safe mode upon the entry of some configurable password (for example something you’d enter in the address or search bar) and hides itself from the list of installed extensions.

    These are just two examples, but in short, it’s the classic case of the victim having to cooperate. I’ve seen some Internet Explorer installations locked down with group policy settings, which is what you’re proposing. In that case, people just downloaded Firefox. Now it’s going to be the same all over again.

  7. I must share with you some feedback we receive in our local community forum — People from one religious party prefer to remove this feature from their browsers, because they admit that they don’t want it and while it is there they may deteriorate into watching content their rabbis said they should not. The feature is it is currently implemented disable them from looking after their other family members, and to prove to others what they are really doing online.

    If we will have an internal option to disable it, they may switch to Firefox as it’d be the only browser supporting this option, as all the other browsers are having Private Mode too, and make Firefox the first Kosher browser. ☺

  8. fsdg: We are not looking for NSA-strength security here, just something that will defeat 95% of 12-year-olds. Now, many 12-year-olds are pretty smart, so you can’t just e.g. hide the menu item in userChrome.css and hope they don’t know there’s a hotkey. But I think you could create something that most of them couldn’t get around.


  9. Why do people think that content logging should be performed in the browser? Why would you not use any of 1) a keylogger, 2) content-filtering software (most of which has logging and is considerably harder to disable than Firefox extensions), or 3) router logs?

    I mean, you seem to be assuming a fair amount of technical knowhow anyway (a technology-illiterate person isn’t going to see a USB stick and immediately think “I bet Portable Firefox is installed on that”), so why not use one of the many solutions already available instead of trying to disable things in an application that was never designed to secure itself from the user?

    One of the many benefits from using a solution designed for this purpose is that it helps against things that are legitimate threats to a child’s safety, like online harassment or abduction instead of merely ensuring that your child isn’t actively searching for dirty pictures.

  10. This is asking for a perilous solution that assumes children won’t increase their knowledge in order to get around it. The *moment* a browser includes this a google search will very likely find hordes of forum posts/etc detailing instructions or workaround tutorials.

    The only way this would work is if the children co-operate with it, and in that case why not *be their advocate* and help educate them to be smarter online so they come to you when they identify threats already mentioned in previous comments.

    Put it another way, this is trying to prevent your child from joining a destructive cult like Scientology by catching them reading the Dianetics book after they’ve read it, instead of beforehand educating them about the brainwashing techniques used in such books.

  11. This belongs outside the browser. Parents or others who want to monitor or control internet traffic should use net nanny, safe eyes, cyberpatrol, or something similar. We should have a FAQ for this so we can quickly refer them to the software they’re really looking for.

    I think most people who ask for specific features of Firefox don’t really know enough about those features to ask for the thing they really want. As software professionals, it’s our job to help them understand the solutions that will actually work for them. Hacking Firefox’s privacy controls isn’t really what these people want or need. it’s just what they think they want. What they want or need is Net Nanny or Safe Eyes.

  12. What?! You’re trying to defeat 12-year-olds? I think that would be difficult. Remember besides their own ingenuity, they have all the expertise of their guttersnipe friends. The simplest solution for them (but not the only one) is just to run Google Chrome in private browsing mode.

    I agree with Asa. They can be given advice that’s more likely to work.

  13. Yes, exactly. Parents are responsible for their children. *Mozilla is not.*

    These people want a magic button that will protect their children from the horrors of looking at boobs. What will all those parents say if you implement a kill switch and they find out it doesn’t work? Mozilla did their parenting for them once; will they again? Should snoopability really be a design goal?

    A kid who knows well enough to use Private Browsing will surely know or find some of the other dozens of ways to protect his/her privacy. It wouldn’t be hard to find you some teenagers who could circumvent a keylogger and packet logger.

  14. Just navigate with the children and explain them why something is good and something is not. Life needs the same kind of attention after all. Prohibition is just prone to failure, as it has always been.

  15. I’ll but in, if I may.

    TO ALL PARENTS: if you are trying to educate your children by checking their browsing history after they leave the computer, then you’re failing at educating them. And if you can’t understand why, then you’re failing as a parent. Children should not be denied content because, they should be educated to understand content for what it is, and should be educated to make their own choices about content they want to so. My parents never forbade me from watching porn when I was 10, and yet I don’t recall doing so, and I didn’t actively seek it (in mags or the internet). And after 14, a well educated children will definitely handle all kinds of content, at least as well as (probably better than) an average 18 year old.

  16. While I’m not so sure how sensible it is to force surveillance or limitations onto kids, for the purpose of personal accountability, there are several options – however, all of them aren’t part of the browser.

    For example http://www.k9webprotection.com/: Browsers, installed or not, are all routed through it by virtue of some OS hook, it helps filtering certain classes of pages, if so desired, and (iirc) it can log all visited pages. Deinstallable only with an admin password (in addition to the admin account’s password).

    Given that there could be a browser on a usb stick that leaves no traces (except that a usb stick is plugged in), browser based mechanisms are useless, this is job for the OS.

  17. This is not the first time that this question has been brought up, and as the person who originally implemented private browsing support for Firefox, I’ve given this a lot of thought. I do not think that we should support a way to disable private browsing in the product, based on at least three different grounds.

    1. Firefox is all about serving the needs of the users. The kids that we’re looking to “protect” here _are_ our users, and I think that as a product, if they believe that they need privacy, we should respect that. Now, one might argue that the parents who want to track what their children do on the web are also users, and that’s definitely true, but the important distinction here is that Firefox is not a tracking product, it is a web browser, and the parents in this context are really looking for a tracking and control solution (as Asa pointed out), not a web browsing solution.

    2. I don’t think that anybody believes that the privacy of adults should be violated. If there was a feature in Firefox which allowed disabling the private browsing mode, the same feature could be used to violate the privacy of adults (in addition to kids), which would mean that all of the privacy promises of Firefox would be nothing but empty words.

    3. We have a wonderful analogy for parents trying to fight their kids’ privacy using methods such as disabling the private browsing mode in the software world: security by obscurity. In both cases, one would (incorrectly) assume that hiding something is an effective way to prevent people from gaining access to it, and I think we have enough evidence on both stories to be convinced that this is a grave error.

    And that is all besides the moral aspect of the issue (whether parents have the right to inhibit their kids’ privacy in this way), but I think that discussion would be misplaced in this context, so I won’t comment on that aspect here. :-)

  18. I will never go through my childrens’ texts, e-mails, browsing history etc. without a very good reason. Just being nosey isn’t one.

    I am very glad that my parents were not like the parents in the feedback comments. I can imagine that I would have had a very sheltered and narrow view of the web, missing out on a wide range of information and experiences. The music I listened to, the people I chatted with, the videos I watched, the programs I downloaded etc. I would be a very different person now had I not had the freedom I had.

  19. Private browsing makes it easier to cover your internet tracks, which makes it more tempting to do naughty stuff like surf porn.

    On a site called Hacking for Christ why are we even debating if an adult should be able to turn this feature off for his and/or his families benefit?

    Forcing someone to cover there tracks the old fashion way is not in anyway taking away anyone’s freedom.

    Ideally Mozilla could be persuaded add a password protection to this feature, but until then . .

    To the hacking . .
    There has to be a simple way to turn off private browsing.

    One tactic would be to remove the menu item from the drop down menu.
    Perhaps there is a way to edit the registry.

    Or maybe there is some kind of way to turn it off in the program. When I was trying to fix how my mouse works with fire fox there was a high level set of options that you could work with. I don’t know where it is right now though.

    It’s too bad that we couldn’t just go to an older version, but that would probably update right away or lack features and support.

    I wish I had answers, but hopefully that helps someone look for the answer.

  20. On a site called Hacking for Christ why are we even debating if an adult should be able to turn this feature off for his and/or his families benefit?

    Because on my website, I allow people to disagree with me.

  21. I don’t say that I want to spy, but recently we did find that our daughters boyfriend watched porn on her computer, what I think is quite inapproriate, since the girl is just 17.

    Hence us not alowing him anymore near any computer in the house.

    This was on IE on which I have disabled the private browsing….

    hence our wish to be able to “track website usage”, and no we don’t want firefox to track everything but I, as user will NOT install FF if I can’t control certain elements that I can control in other similar products, it’s called competition. If your product (FF) is less configurable then another, then you lose my custom.

    Now give that a bit of a thought too when you develop functionality.


  22. The best solution I have found is OpenDNS – it allows you to track and block all websites accessed through your router (assuming you have broadband or a wireless router at home).

    For those saying to is wrong to track or limit sites, I disagree. I use filtering software to keep my husband from accessing porn on my computer, after losing a 1.7 million dollar listing, and my job with a real estate firm, due to pornographic content he had downloaded into my laptop. If he can’t keep it off of my work computer, then I have no reason to believe he could keep it off of our family computer.

    I do not want my 4 and 7 year old viewing pornography because an adult could not control himself and left it on the computer or in the browser. With sites being saved in the address bar (i.e., I type in hotjobs and get sex sites that start with hot) and porn photos being saved amongst family photos in programs like Picasa, the only way to keep it away from young children is to keep it from the computer totally. btw, for those who don’t think it will “hurt” young children, it is a felony sex offense to expose underage children to pornography.

  23. “but recently we did find that our daughters boyfriend watched porn on her computer, what I think is quite inapproriate, since the girl is just 17.

    Hence us not alowing him anymore near any computer in the house.”

    Two questions:

    1. Why does your 17 year old daughter have a “boyfriend”. I realize it’s “normal” for our sick society, but why would a Christian consider that to be an appropriate standard?

    2. Since he’s been caught surfing porn, why is he still involved in her life?

  24. 1) You can’t control a 17 year old and I can’t lock her up either. We talked about it with her long and intensive, but these days they just ignore you (like talking to air or the wall).

    2) We don’t let him in the house anymore, but she will see him at school etc. We have come to a point that we bring her to school and pick her up.

    If you have ideas on how to terminate this relationship then please let me know because we have tried many things, but she is as stubborn as a donkey.

  25. I see a lot of self righteous posts here! My partner came here asking for advice and you take it upon yourselves to judge us as parents?? That is NOT what we came here for. My daughter is a beautiful, polite and well mannered young woman, and I’ve done a fantastic job raising her, so how dare any of you tell ME that I’m failing as a parent! And, Bill, – In this ‘sick’ society most girls by the age of 14, 15 and 16 are pregnant! My daughter is nearly 18 and not sexually active! I am very proud of that! We came here asking for help but instead we’ve been judged by a bunch of religious fantatics! I will resolve this problem myself thank you very much.

  26. I see a lot of self righteous posts here! My partner came here asking for advice and you take it upon yourselves to judge us as parents?? That is NOT what we came here for. My daughter is a beautiful, polite and well mannered young woman, and I’ve done a fantastic job raising her, so how dare any of you tell ME that I’m failing as a parent! And, Bill, – In this ‘sick’ society most girls by the age of 14, 15 and 16 are pregnant! My daughter is nearly 18 and not sexually active! I am very proud of that! We came here asking for help but instead we’ve been judged by a bunch of religious fanatics! I will resolve this problem myself thank you very much.

  27. I love how almost nobody even attempted to answer the question, instead trying to force their parenting approach (or non-parenting approach, as the case may be) down everyone else’s throats. Why can’t anyone just answer the question: do you know any way to disable Private Browsing?

    Personally, my reasons for wanting to do it are that the user experience is abysmal. It appears that the folks at Mozilla didn’t give ANY thought to the proximity of their chosen (and unchangeable) keystroke to the default Mac keystrokes for moving to another tab. Many times I’ve had all of my Firefox windows closed (!?) (and I have a dozen or so open at any given time, each with many tabs) when I just wanted to move left one tab without having to use a mouse.

    If you know a way to disable this feature, which I find very annoying, I’d love to know. But don’t preach at me about my parenting approach because it is completely irrelevant as well as uncalled for.

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