Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Ominous Omnibox

If we were to take the clock back to 2008, when the Google Chrome browser was first announced and released, you may be able to recall one of this browser’s main attractions was the omnibox. Compared with Firefox, the then “browser to use”, it was a nice breakthrough in the field of usability: instead of having one box to type your URL and another to run web searches from, you can now do it all in one box. Why didn’t they think about that before?
Six years later, one cannot avoid noting Firefox still hasn’t figured this out. Mozilla still equips its browser with two separate boxes at an age in which it seems everybody else has adopted the omnibox design. What gives? How come Firefox is so slow to adapt?
The reason for Firefox’ conservatism, if you will, becomes clear once one understands the potential ways in which the omnibox may be abused. At its worst, with Google set as the default search engine, the omnibox will send everything you put in it to Google. Whether you typed a URL or actually did type something for Google to search for, Google will gladly collect all the info you put in the omnibox. Firefox therefore chose to keep two separate boxes in order to signify that this data collection does not happen under its watch. In plain words, Firefox offers a better (but, it has to be said, still compromised) starting point for privacy than Chrome.
There are ways for disabling the omnibox’ damage, my favourite being replacing Google with DuckDuckGo as the default search engine. Unlike that dominant monopoly, the latter does not keep account of its users’ activities.

Which brings me to note the nastiest player in this field thus far. You might have heard of this company, it’s called Apple.
In the latest release of its OS X operating system (the one that runs on Macs), called Yosemite, Apple has introduced the ability to set DuckDuckGo as the default search engine for its built in browser, Safari, and its omnibox. Cool; this means one is no longer at the mercy of the commercial interests of Google, Microsoft or Yahoo.
However, Apple took things one extra step. Regardless of one’s default search engine, anything you type into Safari’s omnibox is sent to Apple. Anything, everything. The official reason is to help create better user experience, but then again isn’t that what we have been told all along from Google? Do yourself a favour and install Firefox on your Mac. You’ll live longer.

More about Apple’s latest shenanigans in the field of privacy in a future post.

Image by Varawut Prasarnkiat, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

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