Firefox stealthily loads webpages when you hover over links -- here's how to stop it

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Pre-fetching or caching of web pages is a technique used by many web browsers to improve perceived performance -- it's nothing new. But Firefox takes a slightly sinister and stealthy approach. Simply hover your mouse over a link and the browser fires off requests to the associated website in the background.

While this sounds potentially helpful, it is also something of a privacy and security concern -- not to mention a waste of bandwidth. You might hover over a link simply to check out the destination in the status bar; if there is a link to a malicious or unsavory website, you probably don’t want these stealthy connections being made in the background. If you're worried about your security or privacy, or just want to be back in control of your web connection, there are steps you can take.

As pointed out in a discussion thread on Slashdot, this is not a feature of individual websites controlled by JavaScript or CSS, it's controlled entirely by Firefox. If you disable JavaScript and CSS, these requests are still fired by simply hovering over a link -- there are various tools that can be used to monitor what is happening with your web traffic. The preloading is a feature of an API called nsISpeculativeConnect, and Mozilla says that it:

Lets non-networking code provide hints to the networking layer that an HTTP connection attempt to a particular site is likely to happen soon; this lets the networking layer begin setting up TCP and, if appropriate, SSL handshakes to save time when the connection is actually opened later.

There have been concerns about the privacy implications of the feature for some time, with some people submitting bug reports about it. Calls for a global setting to be introduced that makes it easy to control whether these pre-connections are enabled or not have been denied -- the issue has a RESOLVED WONTFIX fix label slapped on it indicating that there are no plans to change the way things works.

But you can fight back if you want.

Mozilla has anticipated that what Firefox is doing will not be to everyone's liking and has set up a page on its support site entitled "How to stop Firefox from making automatic connections". The introduction reads:

Some people are concerned about the connections Firefox makes to the Internet, especially when those connections are made for no apparent reason (see Mozilla's Firefox Browser Privacy Notice for additional information). This article explains various reasons why Firefox may make a connection to the Internet and how you can stop it from doing so, if you wish.

To disable the speculative pre-connections feature, take the following steps:

  • Type about:config in the address bar and hit Enter.
  • Click I'll be careful, I promise!
  • Perform a search for the text network.http.speculative-parallel-limit.
  • Change the value of this item to 0.

That's it!

As one commenter says on Slashdot:

One can expect Firefox to make requests in the background to its own servers for things such as checking for updates to plugins etc. But silently making requests to random links on a page (and connecting to those servers) simply by hovering over them is something very different.

Photo credit: Gil C / Shutterstock

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