Mozilla Private Network VPN gives Firefox another privacy boost

Is this week’s test pilot launch of Private Network the moment browser VPNs finally become a must-have privacy feature?

Available as a free beta extension for desktop Firefox, initially in the US only, its arrival is certainly promising.

It’s not the first browser to offer this feature – that honour goes to Opera – but it is the one with the largest user base that promotes privacy for its own sake.

All users need to do is download the extension and sign to their Firefox account (or create a new account). Then it’s a matter of clicking on the extension’s icon in the toolbar and toggling the VPN on or off as needed.

Turning it on routes and encrypts Firefox traffic through a proxy server run by Mozilla’s partner Cloudflare, which means that visited websites can’t see the user’s true IP address or location.

This doesn’t stop websites from ‘fingerprinting’ the user in other ways, however, Firefox recently added other features that make doing that more difficult.

Still, adding a VPN to Firefox is clever because it means the privacy protection is integrated into one application rather than being spread across different services. That integration probably makes it more likely to be used by people who wouldn’t otherwise use one.

There are times when users might want to turn it off, either because the site being accessed rejects VPN connections (streaming services can be fussy) or because using it is having an impact on performance (we don’t know that Mozilla Private Network will have this effect but it’s worth keeping in mind).

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Pros and cons

Turning on the VPN will give users a secure connection to a trusted server when using a device connected to public Wi-Fi (and running the gamut of rogue Wi-Fi hotspots and unknown intermediaries). Many travellers use subscription VPNs when away from a home the Mozilla Private Network is just a simpler, zero-cost alternative.

However, like Opera’s offering, it’s not a true VPN that is, it only encrypts traffic while using one browser, Firefox.  Traffic from all other applications on the same computer won’t be secured in the same way.

As with any VPN, it won’t keep you completely anonymous. Websites you visit will see a Cloudflare IP address instead of your own, but you will still get advertising cookies and if you log in to a website your identity will be known to that site.

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