Firefox offers a shift from single to split 'personalities' online

Mozilla has launched an experimental feature called Firefox Containers that gives users the option of separating their online identities within the same browser.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Heather West, senior policy manager for Mozilla, speaks about 'Privacy for Startups' at the Passcode booth on the trade show floor in the Austin Convention Center for South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive on March 14, in Austin, Texas. Mozilla launched an experimental feature called Firefox Containers that gives users the option of separating their online identities within the same browser.

Mozilla is debuting Firefox Containers, a new feature that separates web history within the same browser to split online "personalities" for its users. 

The containers not only compartmentalize web use for individuals but could alter yet again the dynamic of how users present themselves in the online world.

The internet began as a method for machines to communicate with each other, but it evolved rapidly, producing communication lines that went far beyond email. The initial maze of chat rooms, comment boards, and blogs offered the promise of communication without identity. Anonymity became a staple of the online world, giving society both the 1998 film "You've Got Mail" and the more sinister phenomena of catfishing and online bullying. 

The Wild West of the web could not last forever, and as society became increasingly web-connected, users realized their personal information was being both tracked by governments and sold by private companies to the highest bidder.

“Absolute anonymity is not a particularly achievable thing,” Dan Kaminsky, chief scientist at New York-based security vendor White Ops, told The Christian Science Monitor.

A quest to regain online anonymity shifted to privacy, and the list of tools to achieve it grew to include incognito browsers, virtual private networks (VPN), and Twitter. 

“As people have become more aware of the potential for their online activities to be used in ways they hadn’t necessarily intended, usage of encrypted browsers, ad-blockers and other anonymising devices has soared,” David Benigson, CEO of the media monitoring platform Signal, told the Guardian. “Historically, web giants have managed to convince consumers into giving up their privacy – the fact that every Google search is logged and recorded, for example, is now seen as par for the course."

What Firefox is proposing cannot halt the data dump, but it does refine it. Firefox Containers – accessible by downloading Firefox Nightly – subdivides new tabs into personal, work, banking, and shopping personas. Containers color-code each persona and categorize browsing history and cookies within a "fully segregated cookie jar," keeping each section's caches separate, according to a Mozilla Firefox blog post.

"The user can login to their work twitter account on in their Work Container and also login to their personal twitter on in their Personal Container," security engineer Tanvi Vyas wrote. "The user won’t need to use multiple browsers, an account switcher, or constantly log in and out to switch between accounts on the same domain."

This could stop ads for restaurants in Monterrey from popping up at work the week after vacation, for example, or enable a single user to research news trends at the office without impacting a personal newsfeed after-hours.  

The technology is still experimental, but it could ultimately have a deeper impact on web use, not by returning to the fabled early days of internet anonymity but instead by giving expression to a person's varied, real-life roles online.

"We all portray different characteristics of ourselves in different situations," Ms. Vyas went on. "But when I use the web, I can’t do that very well. There is no easy way to segregate my identities such that my browsing behavior while shopping for toddler clothes doesn’t cross over to my browsing behavior while working."

The Containers feature tries to mimic the diversity of an individual user within his or her online persona. If it works, it could close one of the major gaps between a person's real-world and virtual experience. 

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