We are pleased to announce that Firefox 87 will introduce a stricter, more privacy-preserving default Referrer Policy. From now on, by default, Firefox will trim path and query string information from referrer headers to prevent sites from accidentally leaking sensitive user data.
Referrer headers and Referrer Policy
Browsers send the HTTP Referrer header (note: original specification name is ‘HTTP Referer’) to signal to a website which location “referred” the user to that website’s server. More precisely, browsers have traditionally sent the full URL of the referring document (typically the URL in the address bar) in the HTTP Referrer header with virtually every navigation or subresource (image, style, script) request. Websites can use referrer information for many fairly innocent uses, including analytics, logging, or for optimizing caching.
Unfortunately, the HTTP Referrer header often contains private user data: it can reveal which articles a user is reading on the referring website, or even include information on a user’s account on a website.
The introduction of the Referrer Policy in browsers in 2016-2018 allowed websites to gain more control over the referrer values on their site, and hence provided a mechanism to protect the privacy of their users. However, if a website does not set any kind of referrer policy, then web browsers have traditionally defaulted to using a policy of ‘no-referrer-when-downgrade’, which trims the referrer when navigating to a less secure destination (e.g., navigating from https: to http:) but otherwise sends the full URL including path, and query information of the originating document as the referrer.
A new Policy for an evolving Web
The ‘no-referrer-when-downgrade’ policy is a relic of the past web, when sensitive web browsing was thought to occur over HTTPS connections and as such should not leak information in HTTP requests. Today’s web looks much different: the web is on a path to becoming HTTPS-only, and browsers are taking steps to curtail information leakage across websites. It is time we change our default Referrer Policy in line with these new goals.
Starting with Firefox 87, we set the default Referrer Policy to ‘strict-origin-when-cross-origin’ which will trim user sensitive information accessible in the URL. As illustrated in the example above, this new stricter referrer policy will not only trim information for requests going from HTTPS to HTTP, but will also trim path and query information for all cross-origin requests. With that update Firefox will apply the new default Referrer Policy to all navigational requests, redirected requests, and subresource (image, style, script) requests, thereby providing a significantly more private browsing experience.
If you are a Firefox user, you don’t have to do anything to benefit from this change. As soon as your Firefox auto-updates to version 87, the new default policy will be in effect for every website you visit. Yet another way that Firefox is improving your privacy, step by step!