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When Firefox, privacy and relationships collide...
March 23, 2006 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Firefox “causes” breakup... One man uses his fiance's computer to surf dating and swinger websites. He's careful to wipe his passwords etc. as he surfs - and then for good measure, de-installs Firefox.

The fiance then decides to install Firefox for the usual reasons, not knowing the above and happens to decides to edit the list of sites to never save passwords for. And comes across a list of said websites, and realises that he's still an active member of those websites.

Surely when you de-install a program, the uninstallation process should get rid of program-related data too, like in games? Although the geniuses at Firefox manifestly disagree with this. Other commenters also think the man was in the right.
posted by badlydubbedboy (61 comments total)

 
The difference between apt-get remove and apt-get --purge remove, eh? Well, purge won't kill your personal settings in the home directory, but whatever.

This strikes me as manifestly silly. Many programs view personal configuration files like this as user data not unlike documents, and never delete it. Big deal.

The moral of the story: if you're doing something fundamentally dishonest with your computer, you need to learn the potential pitfalls of your software, or you deserve what you get.
posted by teece at 8:26 AM on March 23, 2006


This is the best open-source browser related break-up story evah!
posted by Jofus at 8:29 AM on March 23, 2006


Yeah, well if he's such a pimp on dating websites, it shouldn't be a problem for him to pick up a new girl.

The real problem though is that the "clear private data" option didn't get rid of the list of saved passwords in firefox. It certainly should have, and not doing so was an oversite on the part of the firefox developers.
posted by delmoi at 8:30 AM on March 23, 2006


The reporter's fiancé had secretly used Firefox on her computer to visit dating sites such as JDate, SwingLifeStyle, and Adult FriendFinder.

Heh. I never new JDate was such a kinky place...
posted by delmoi at 8:31 AM on March 23, 2006


I mean *knew*. Wow.
posted by delmoi at 8:31 AM on March 23, 2006


Sure, blame the software for his indiscretions. Doesn't anyone take responsibility for their actions anymore?
posted by DonnieSticks at 8:31 AM on March 23, 2006


Surely when you de-install a program, the uninstallation process should get rid of program-related data too, like in games?

Heck no! Especially not when I'm uninstalling to upgrade, or to switch to a different software package that might make use of that user data.

I can see a bit of utility in the idea of having an option to delete user data in the uninstaller, but I don't think it should be a high priority, nor are Mozilla programmers doing anything wrong in not having that option. An even better option would be to offer this as a separate utility.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:33 AM on March 23, 2006


Surely when you de-install a program, the uninstallation process should get rid of program-related data too, like in games?

In the ideal situation you should be presented with a choice (as you are in many game uninstalls, to save your game save data).
posted by poppo at 8:33 AM on March 23, 2006


Sucks to be him.
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 8:33 AM on March 23, 2006


Very few programs delete their little bits of data dandruff when they depart your computer, particularly when it comes to Windows apps.

Not only that, there's no standard place for this dandruff; some apps drop it in Program Files where the binary resides, some drop it in Application Data, some drop it in Documents and Settings, and some drop it right in the user's My Documents folder (which is stupid).

It's annoying, but it rarely causes this level of discomfort. The more common complaint is an extension fubars Firefox to the point where you need to reinstall, and you then have to dig through directories and delete stuff manually to get a clean slate.
posted by selfnoise at 8:35 AM on March 23, 2006


So, umm...for FireFox...how would one go about wiping all this information? Delete the folder in Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox?
posted by Brian James at 8:38 AM on March 23, 2006


This is an outgrowth of programmers' fundamental separation of code and data.

Firefox's program files live in, well, Program Files. But the data generated by the program is stored deep in the Documents and Settings directory for the current user.

That's user data, and it would never occur to them to touch it with an uninstall utility. Users are responsible for user data.... even though most users don't know where it's stored. I bet _nobody_ on the dev team thought about this issue even once.

They just need to add code to the uninstaller, offering to delete the profile directory.

Just for reference, the Firefox info is stored in c:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles. The actual profile will be a folder with a random name.

And they wonder why people can't find it. :)
posted by Malor at 8:39 AM on March 23, 2006


haha i love the guy who commented on the first link's page with a simple,

'that's awesome'

so much cynicism, he's my new hero.
posted by Sijeka at 8:41 AM on March 23, 2006


Firefox is open source hooray but the interface is kludgey and it crashes often. And, of course, there's that crazy unfixable memory leak. I'll stick with Safari, thanks.

In OSX for comparison you just drag the application icon to the trash. Poof. Everything deleted.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 8:42 AM on March 23, 2006


This practice is a kindness if you want to install another browser which inhales existing settings from other applications. But it's a bitch if you're uninstalling the program because it's misbehaving due to scrozzled user settings, since those settings will come right back when you reinstall it. Optimally, programs should offer the option of removing anything they create, but in practice very few developers actually design for the case that you want to get rid of their program.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2006


What good is a web browser if it doesn't allow you to cheat on your significant other using his or her computer?
posted by brain_drain at 8:44 AM on March 23, 2006


But, granted, without Firefox and open source ajax hacking we'd never be at Web 2.0.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 8:45 AM on March 23, 2006


Isn't this one of the main reasons for Safari's Private Browsing feature? Sure, it's useful for using a shared computer, but I bet it's all about the down low.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:46 AM on March 23, 2006


But, granted, without Firefox and open source ajax hacking we'd never be at Web 2.0.

What a pity.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:46 AM on March 23, 2006


delmoi writes: "The real problem though is that the 'clear private data' option didn't get rid of the list of saved passwords in firefox. It certainly should have, and not doing so was an oversite on the part of the firefox developers."

Take it to Bugzilla. That was not intended to be snarky btw. I'm happy for the fiance's sake that the guy is a garden-variety stupid tool instead of the more insideous cunning tool.
posted by Fezboy! at 8:48 AM on March 23, 2006


but the interface is kludgey and it crashes often

This is just another way of saying Your Favorite Program Sucks
posted by Brian James at 8:51 AM on March 23, 2006


I'm happy for the fiance's sake that the guy is a garden-variety stupid tool instead of the more insideous cunning tool.

Yes. I would have recommended using Portable Firefox running off a USB flash drive.
posted by poppo at 8:52 AM on March 23, 2006


In OSX for comparison you just drag the application icon to the trash. Poof. Everything deleted.

Try that with Firefox - AFAIK your personal settings in the Library won't be removed.
posted by twistedonion at 8:54 AM on March 23, 2006


actually that's probably what you were getting at.
posted by twistedonion at 8:54 AM on March 23, 2006


The lesson to be learned here is that you should always surf swingers' sites with your significant other.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:57 AM on March 23, 2006


In OSX for comparison you just drag the application icon to the trash. Poof. Everything deleted.

OS X is actually worse than Windows in this regard. In addition to user data, lots of apps install files in places like ~/Library/Application Support without providing an uninstaller, which is why there are apps like AppZapper and Yank.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 9:01 AM on March 23, 2006


In OSX for comparison you just drag the application icon to the trash. Poof. Everything deleted.

No it's not. Your profile will still live on Mac OS X, even if you delete Firefox (and it's the same way with Safari, or any Mac program, for that matter). In Windows, your profile will still stay behind after an uninstall. On Linux, your profile will stay behind after an uninstall. On FreeBSD, your profile will stay behind after an uninstall.

You get the picture. This has little to do with the platform.

OS X is actually worse than Windows in this regard.

No it's not — for most modern Windows programs, user data will not go with the program data, and will not be uninstalled. It should be that way, and any Windows program that stores user configuration with the binary (and thus uninstalls it without a question), is BUGGY and should have a bug report filed against it.
posted by teece at 9:08 AM on March 23, 2006


Maybe he should have used Portable Firefox. Deleting the app should delete all the data.

For those who say that uninstalling the app should delete the data, isn't that a bit like saying that uninstalling Microsoft Office should delete all your Word documents?
posted by blue_beetle at 9:08 AM on March 23, 2006


Thanks Shanks I'll check out Yank.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:10 AM on March 23, 2006


Would 'Crap Cleaner' have got rid of this?

http://www.ccleaner.com
posted by seanyseansean at 9:22 AM on March 23, 2006


Eh. It doesn't take a super-user to trash an app, then do a search for the name of the app. As others have pointed out, all the data files containing the settings and prefs are either in ~/Library/Application Support or ~/Library/Preferences.

Also, Firefox rocks. I just wish they had consistent drag-and-save image capability. Works with some pages, not others.
posted by squirrel at 9:32 AM on March 23, 2006


Talking about OS X, of course.
posted by squirrel at 9:32 AM on March 23, 2006


See- this is exactly why I use Internet Explorer. You can't uninstall it, so your marriage stays intact.

IE also has Tweak UI which has a paranoia setting that's supposed to remove footsteps- not sure how well it works.
posted by efbrazil at 9:38 AM on March 23, 2006


blue_beetle said 'For those who say that uninstalling the app should delete the data, isn't that a bit like saying that uninstalling Microsoft Office should delete all your Word documents?'

That's what I was thinking. The idea of apps wiping my data when I uninstall them is terrifying!

The Jesse Helms said 'In OSX for comparison you just drag the application icon to the trash. Poof. Everything deleted.'

Thanks to Apple's 'everything's so simple! Just move things to the Trash!' marketing, worrying numbers of folk believe this to be the case. I can't think of an app that doesn't leave stuff behind.

Unfaithful Firefox users on OS X might want to do away with ~/Library/Application Support/Firefox/Profiles/[some random numbers and letters].default/ and ~/Library/Preferences/org.mozilla.firefox.plist after trashing the application.
posted by jack_mo at 9:40 AM on March 23, 2006


Oh noes!

The Sims 2 does not automatically delete my custom sims. Now my girlfriend will find what I did to them...
posted by slimepuppy at 9:44 AM on March 23, 2006


Wait just a minute... people use on-line dating sites to help them to cheat on their significant others??? Ingenious!!
posted by psmealey at 9:53 AM on March 23, 2006


I thought when you reinstalled firefox it would give you a brand new profile, is this not so ?
posted by zeoslap at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2006


Of course, there's absolutely no evidence that he was cheating (or even had any intention of cheating) on his girlfriend.

Maybe he was trying to set up a threesome. :-P

I don't think anyone is saying that he's not responsible, but they are saying that Firefox did leave behind some unexpected goodies.
posted by drstein at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2006


There should be an option to delete those profiles or not. Simple.

But you can't blame the program for their breakup, geez.
posted by raedyn at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2006


IE also has Tweak UI which has a paranoia setting that's supposed to remove footsteps- not sure how well it works.

On the Mac, Safari has Porn Private Browsing to accomplish the same thing (ostensibly, it's for those times you log into your bank account from the internet cafe's Mac, or something. Right. It's really about porn or cheating on your spouse. But hey, Apple's got everybody covered, from Johnny Upstanding to Filo the Philanderer).

Thanks to Apple's 'everything's so simple! Just move things to the Trash!' marketing, worrying numbers of folk believe this to be the case. I can't think of an app that doesn't leave stuff behind.

The great majority of apps leave nothing behind but user configuration files, less than a few kb in size, that are of no consequence, and offer a real benefit to being left behind *. Official policy from Apple is that you strive to make your app work this way — if you don't, you are instructed to provide an uninstaller along with the app. Programs that don't are buggy, and should have bugs filed against them. It really has little to do with Apple's "everything's so simple" system. And by and large the system works pretty well. Any time I get an app with an installer (which aren't all that common), I know that unless the program is really complex and needs system-wide hooks, I have a goofy Apple citizen on my hands, and check their uninstall instructions, which gives me a clue to the developer's skill and knowledge of the Apple platform.

* Even the most disk-starved system won't care they're there, and if you decide to use the app again, your settings are intact. Yeah, it gives OCD sufferers are hard time, but they should really look into Paxil.
posted by teece at 10:12 AM on March 23, 2006


posted "Surely when you de-install a program, the uninstallation process should get rid of program-related data too, like in games?"

No! Uninstallers that remove user data are fundmentally broken. How'd you like the Office uninstaller to walk your HD and delete all the .docs it found? I'm sorry this guy feels he got burned but the program behaved correctly.
posted by Mitheral at 10:24 AM on March 23, 2006


I think you can pretty much assume something will go wrong if your activity fits in the following formula:


I use my girlfriend/fiance/wife/so's _____ to _____ behind his/her back, but they'll never find out.
posted by davejay at 10:32 AM on March 23, 2006


MetaFilter: Everybody covered, from Johnny Upstanding to Filo the Philanderer.
posted by squirrel at 10:56 AM on March 23, 2006


Uninstallers that remove user data are fundmentally broken. How'd you like the Office uninstaller to walk your HD and delete all the .docs it found?

Program or configuration data of use only to the program being uninstalled is not at all the same thing. I wouldn't expect Firefox to remove web pages I'd explicitly saved (and saved to somewhere other than Firefox's program or configuration folders). But there's no reason for Firefox not to delete user profiles (or at least make it an option). What are you going to do with your profile without Firefox? Nothing. So why keep it?
posted by tiny purple fishes at 11:08 AM on March 23, 2006


The internet is for porn. Duh.
posted by loquacious at 11:09 AM on March 23, 2006


tiny purple fishes: But there's no reason for Firefox not to delete user profiles (or at least make it an option). What are you going to do with your profile without Firefox? Nothing. So why keep it?

Quite a few software programs will import data (such as addresses and bookmarks) from other software programs to ease the transition. In addition, I'd want that data intact when I upgrade as well.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:28 AM on March 23, 2006


But wouldn't it occur to you to import bookmarks or addresses into another program or to export or otherwise save them before you uninstalled Firefox? It wouldn't occur to me weeks or months after uninstalling a program to go and get its configuration data to use by some other program. Gee, I had Microsoft Office on this machine last year but uninstalled it. Now I'll go import its templates into OpenOffice. I wouldn't expect those templates to still be on my machine.
posted by tiny purple fishes at 11:45 AM on March 23, 2006


Where is this evidence that uninstalling a program *shouldn't* also lead to removal of program-related data eg configuration files and the like?

Did someone do a survey and ask people this? Or is this just the natural assumption of programmers?

Word documents etc. can be read independently of Word. A Mozilla history file (for instance) is of no use to any other program.

If I'm going to uninstall a program, I'd at least like the option of having related configuration files and the like also deleted. Is this so hard to implement? Why are programmers so knee-jerk against what is a simple proposition? It's simply the digital equivalent of "take your trash with you"
posted by badlydubbedboy at 11:50 AM on March 23, 2006


The answer to this: Don't surf swinger and dating websites if your fiancee has a problem with it.
posted by moonbiter at 12:11 PM on March 23, 2006


tpf: But wouldn't it occur to you to import bookmarks or addresses into another program or to export or otherwise save them before you uninstalled Firefox?

Not if I'm doing a fresh upgrade of Firefox that requires me to uninstall it before installing a new version.

Not if I'm using a different Gecko-based browser and want to avoid conflicts with libraries and system-wide settings uninstalling everything Mozilla related.

Not if, as the case may be, I suspect my Firefox library has been compromised and removing it takes priority over installing a replacement.

Not if I want to keep open the option of using Firefox sometime in the future. Perhaps I might be willing to switch back when a bug is fixed.

Or here is another reason. Being the paranoid sort, I wouldn't trust an uninstaller to just delete those files. I'd want to go in and use a utility of my choice to overwrite those files with random data before unlinking them.

Oh, and don't forget that someone, somewhere is going to do the uninstall, and then need some bit of information, some password, something that only existed in Firefox.

I've provided you with six reasons why Firefox shouldn't automatically remove user preference files. I'll even state that a basic rule of good software etiquette should be to not delete non-trivial user data without permission. I'm more than happy to compromise and say that it should be an option, but please be polite about it and provide plenty of warnings for the people.

Gee, I had Microsoft Office on this machine last year but uninstalled it. Now I'll go import its templates into OpenOffice. I wouldn't expect those templates to still be on my machine.

If I installed those templates in my personal configuration directory, rather than in the Microsoft Office directory, damn right I would expect for those templates to be around until I rip apart the disk drive, or I personally take an action that removes those templates.

Here you are arguing apples and oranges. System-wide configuration files and templates? Fair game for an uninstall program. Data stored in my personal directory? Please ask first.

badleydubbedboy: Did someone do a survey and ask people this? Or is this just the natural assumption of programmers?

It is generally good practice to not delete more than is necessary, or to avoid deleting data that may be useful at some point in the future unless the user explicitly demands it.

Word documents etc. can be read independently of Word. A Mozilla history file (for instance) is of no use to any other program.

Nonsense. I have a program that spiders through history files for those cases where I know I read it, forgot to bookmark it, but don't want to try reconstructing a search through google.

Why are programmers so knee-jerk against what is a simple proposition?

Did you bother to RTFA?

1: The profile isn't created by the installer.
2: There is no single install or uninstall system used by all systems on which Mozilla apps are available.
3: Deleting user files during an uninstall raises security and policy issues on multi-user systems. (Whose user directory do you delete? What if Betty wants to remove her profile, but Joe does not?)
4: In the history of Mozilla applications, it has sometimes been necessary to do a clean install.
5: For many of the above reasons, most software packages don't uninstall user preferences.

These reasons don't sound knee-jerk to me, they sound like rational design decisions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2006


I'm still totally confused by this. Surely bloke's embarrassing Firefox data was stored in $BLOKE_HOME_DIR/.firefox (or something similar) and his girlfriend's was in $GIRLFRIEND/.firefox. How did she have read access in her boyfriend's home directory?
posted by salmacis at 1:59 PM on March 23, 2006


A garden-variety tool uses his fiance's account on her computer. A cunning tool creates his own account, finds a bevy of hot chickas, then deletes the account. This was a garden-variety tool.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:08 PM on March 23, 2006


Did anyone notice what 'John Doe' said in the comments beneath the article in the first linked article? That it shares the 'Do Not Save Passwords' list across user accounts? I think that concerns me more from a privacy point of view. Admittedly I haven't verified this myself.

Not everyone who uses Firefox is going to be tech-savvy enough to even consider that this kind of data will not be removed on uninstall. Firefox's userbase is growing everyday, but it's media coverage like this that will discourage casual users from trying it IMHO. I don't think they are wrong to have the uninstall set up like this but an option would be a better idea. Yes, I know it's Open Source and you don't have to pay for it, etc. but to assume that the user should know better is a touch elitist. Or possibly just naive.
posted by 999 at 4:20 PM on March 23, 2006


So why not have an option in the uninstall process that *explicitly* deletes (or backs up to the desktop) all profile data?
posted by badlydubbedboy at 4:57 PM on March 23, 2006


She was going to find out sooner or later, and dump him anyway. This has nothing to do with the browser.
posted by Roger Dodger at 5:09 PM on March 23, 2006


To me, this seems like six of one and a half-dozen of the other. If they change the uninstall process to delete user profiles, they will get a whole bunch of related complaints.

Meanwhile, there are serious technical and policy issues. (Shared installations, lack of a common installer, etc., etc..)

Of course, part of the problem is with hiding preferences and profiles into hidden directories.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:29 PM on March 23, 2006


So why not have an option in the uninstall process that *explicitly* deletes (or backs up to the desktop) all profile data?

For something like Firefox that can have privacy issues, it seems like a swell idea. (But deleting by default is a bad idea).

But I bet that either the Firefox developers have not thought about it at all, or they have (a bit), but haven't felt it was important enough, for the effort involved, to protect technologically un-savy, philandering Firefox users.
posted by teece at 6:44 PM on March 23, 2006


"One man uses his fiance's computer to surf dating and swinger websites. He's careful to wipe his passwords etc. as he surfs - and then for good measure, de-installs Firefox."

So he used his fiancee's computer to (try to?) cheat on her and he's upset that she found out. I, who have praised polygamy through 12 years online and 20 years in real-life relationships, say "Tough titties. You should have told her upfront you're not the monogamous type."

This is not really a comp.sci question. If he insisted on cheating on his fiancee he should have used his own damn computer, or one at the library or internet cafe or wherever.
posted by davy at 9:00 PM on March 23, 2006


The aspect of whether you expect the uninstallation of a program to also delete configuration data (such as history, passwords, bookmarks etc.) is a bit of a comp.sci Q. If you ask me.

Then again, I'm not a comp.sci'er - just a user. ;-)
posted by badlydubbedboy at 3:51 AM on March 24, 2006


This is not entirely and only an issue about uninstall. There are serious, legitimate privacy concerns here.

From the comments on the bug...

"The fact is, she is 100% correct, after reading the article I went to my Windows 2000 Pro machine and went to tools > Options > Passwords > View SavedPasswords > Passwords Never Saved and there were a list of sites that I did not want passwords saved for.

I then chose Clear Private Data and went back into
the password manager. The list was still there. Lastly, I created a new user account, went into Password manager; guess what…the list was still there.

Not only is the list not cleared with private data, it is also shared between user accounts on the same machine."
posted by soulhuntre at 11:03 AM on March 24, 2006


soulhuntre writes "I then chose Clear Private Data and went back into
"the password manager. The list was still there. "



This behaviour at least seems like a privacy enhancing feature. You can't clear your personal data and then accidently have FF remember your bank password or something.
posted by Mitheral at 11:18 AM on March 24, 2006


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