The Referer header has been a part of the web for a long time. Websites rely on it for a few different purposes (e.g. analytics, ads, CSRF protection) but it can be quite problematic from a privacy perspective.

Thankfully, there are now tools in Firefox to help users and developers mitigate some of these problems.

Description

In a nutshell, the browser adds a Referer header to all outgoing HTTP requests, revealing to the server on the other end the URL of the page you were on when you placed the request. For example, it tells the server where you were when you followed a link to that site, or what page you were on when you requested an image or a script. There are, however, a few limitations to this simplified explanation.

First of all, by default, browsers won't send a referrer if you place a request from an HTTPS page to an HTTP page. This would reveal potentially confidential information (such as the URL path and query string which could contain session tokens or other secret identifiers) from a secure page over an insecure HTTP channel. Firefox will however include a Referer header in HTTPS to HTTPS transitions unless network.http.sendSecureXSiteReferrer (removed in Firefox 52) is set to false in about:config.

Secondly, using the new Referrer Policy specification web developers can override the default behaviour for their pages, including on a per-element basis. This can be used both to increase or reduce the amount of information present in the referrer.

Legitimate Uses

Because the Referer header has been around for so long, a number of techniques rely on it.

Armed with the Referer information, analytics tools can figure out:

  • where website traffic comes from, and
  • how users are navigating the site.

Another place where the Referer is useful is as a mitigation against cross-site request forgeries. In that case, a website receiving a form submission can reject that form submission if the request originated from a different website.

It's worth pointing out that this CSRF mitigation might be better implemented via a separate header that could be restricted to particularly dangerous requests (i.e. POST and DELETE requests) and only include the information required for that security check (i.e. the origin).

Problems with the Referrer

Unfortunately, this header also creates significant privacy and security concerns.

The most obvious one is that it leaks part of your browsing history to sites you visit as well as all of the resources they pull in (e.g. ads and third-party scripts). It can be quite complicated to fix these leaks in a cross-browser way.

These leaks can also lead to exposing private personally-identifiable information when they are part of the query string. One of the most high-profile example is the accidental leakage of user searches by healthcare.gov.

Solutions for Firefox Users

While web developers can use the new mechanisms exposed through the Referrer Policy, Firefox users can also take steps to limit the amount of information they send to websites, advertisers and trackers.

In addition to enabling Firefox's built-in tracking protection by setting privacy.trackingprotection.enabled to true in about:config, which will prevent all network connections to known trackers, users can control when the Referer header is sent by setting network.http.sendRefererHeader to:

  • 0 to never send the header
  • 1 to send the header only when clicking on links and similar elements
  • 2 (default) to send the header on all requests (e.g. images, links, etc.)

It's also possible to put a limit on the maximum amount of information that the header will contain by setting the network.http.referer.trimmingPolicy to:

  • 0 (default) to send the full URL
  • 1 to send the URL without its query string
  • 2 to only send the scheme, host and port

or using the network.http.referer.XOriginTrimmingPolicy option (added in Firefox 52) to only restrict the contents of referrers attached to cross-origin requests.

Site owners can opt to share less information with other sites, but they can't share any more than what the user trimming policies allow.

Another approach is to disable the Referer when doing cross-origin requests (from one site to another). The network.http.referer.XOriginPolicy preference can be set to:

  • 0 (default) to send the referrer in all cases
  • 1 to send a referrer only when the base domains are the same
  • 2 to send a referrer only when the full hostnames match

Breakage

If you try to remove all referrers (i.e. network.http.sendRefererHeader = 0, you will most likely run into problems on a number of sites, for example:

The first two have been worked-around successfully by setting network.http.referer.spoofSource to true, an advanced setting which always sends the destination URL as the referrer, thereby not leaking anything about the original page.

Unfortunately, the last two are examples of the kind of breakage that can only be fixed through a whitelist (an approach supported by the smart referer add-on) or by temporarily using a different browser profile.

My Recommended Settings

As with my cookie recommendations, I recommend strengthening your referrer settings but not disabling (or spoofing) it entirely.

While spoofing does solve many the breakage problems mentioned above, it also effectively disables the anti-CSRF protections that some sites may rely on and that have tangible user benefits. A better approach is to limit the amount of information that leaks through cross-origin requests.

If you are willing to live with some amount of breakage, you can simply restrict referrers to the same site by setting:

network.http.referer.XOriginPolicy = 2

or to sites which belong to the same organization (i.e. same ETLD/public suffix) using:

network.http.referer.XOriginPolicy = 1

This prevent leaks to third-parties while giving websites all of the information that they can already see in their own server logs.

On the other hand, if you prefer a weaker but more compatible solution, you can trim cross-origin referrers down to just the scheme, hostname and port:

network.http.referer.XOriginTrimmingPolicy = 2

I have not yet found user-visible breakage using this last configuration. Let me know if you find any!