Who Am I and If So How Many? Using multiple Firefox profiles.

So, I’ve changed my Firefox setup quite a bit over the last months. I now work with multiple profiles, e.g. one for online banking, one for social media use and one for development purposes and one for “default” use (i.e. pretty much else). I’m quite happy with the experience.

Usually I have all three profiles running in parallel, showing on different virtual desktops of my linux box. I.e., on desktop 2, I usually have my development environment open, so I’ll open the “development” browser there, desktop 4 runs all the applications for interacting with other people (mail etc.), so “social” goes there and the default one will show on virtual desktop 5.

Why would you do this?

One direct effect is that the amount of open tabs in any given browser window is a lot smaller and also better grouped than before. I.e., any web page I need for my current development project I will only open in my “development” profile. I will only open my bank’s page in the banking profile, so this browser window will never show anything else.

The other main benefit is that I can have profile specific configurations. E.g., I nail down my “default” profile with NoScript which is not really useful on my “development” profile, whereas I don’t need e.g. the React Dev tools on the “social” or “default” profile.

Dedicated profiles can also help with security, e.g., using a dedicated profile can lower the attack surface for online banking: When you don’t browse to other sites with the same browser/profile, any XSS/CSRF issue on these “other” sites for sure can’t affect your online banking connection.

The profile I use exclusively for online banking is also highly locked down and in addition uses a different theme, so that it is visually obvious that I’m working with this profile.

Get me started, please

To start using multiple profiles, you have to run Firefox with the -P switch, which will start the Profile Manager that allows you to create new profiles, delete profiles etc. Alternatively, if you have Firefox already running, browsing to about:profiles will also allow you to manage your profiles.

For a while, I just started the non-default browsers manually over the command line, by just opening an xterm and running firefox --no-remote -P social &. But I finally created some additional local .desktop files (cf. the Arch wiki page on xdg desktop files), so I can start Firefox from the desktop. I.e., I added a file $HOME/.local/share/applications/socialbrowser-usercreated.desktop with the following content:

[Desktop Entry]
Name=Social Firefox
Comment=Browse the World Wide Web
Comment[de]=Im Internet surfen
Exec=/usr/lib/firefox-esr/firefox-esr --no-remote -P social %u

This will then create a menu entry in the “Internet” submenu in my application starter menu in my desktop environment (because that’s where the given categories will create entries).

Any drawbacks?

One annoying thing is the profile selection that Firefox pops up when you don’t specify a profile on the command line. If you select the option “Use the selected profile without asking at startup”, then it will not be easy anymore to use a different profile — the only way then is really to use -P again.

This default profile selection becomes a problem especially when you want to open a link from a different application (eg. from your mail program), because then you can’t decide which of the running browsers/profiles will open the link, it will always try to use the default one. I have seen varying behavior what Firefox does when you don’t select a default profile: sometimes it just picks one running profile successfully, but I’ve also seen it opening the profile selection dialog again. In that case, if you select a profile that is already in use, Firefox will handle it like an attempt to open up the profile a second time, resulting in an error. My current workaround to this particular issue is to set the default browser to Chromium via xdg-settings set default-web-browser chromium.desktop.

The other hassle working with multiple profiles is bookmark management, as I want some bookmarks only local to one profile but most should be shared. I can use Pocket for the shared ones, of course. However, I often just copy&paste the URL manually to the “default” browser which serves as the main bookmark keeper. I really should move away from this completely and instead use the bookmark extension of my Nextcloud installation.

Overall, for me the benefits clearly outweigh any drawbacks.

On password safety

I’m using computers for quite a while and since fifteen or more years I’ve been using multi-user systems and the internet. Having a computer science and linguistics background, security of passwords is not exactly a new issue for me. Quite to the contrary, I’ve been telling a lot of my friends that using good passwords is important.

However, this week I’ve stumbled about some interesting pieces that shed new light on the topic for me. The first is a not exactly new article by Bruce Schneier about how secure passwords keep you safer, which contained quite some information that was new to me. It’s a very interesting piece on possible approaches to break passwords as of three years ago. Now combine that with a more recent piece on using cloud computing to crack passwords and you might get an idea how important using really good passwords might have become today.

This brings me back to my current usage of passwords. Until now, I’ve seen my passwords as reasonably hard to break. They contain all the usual stuff, a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and some symbols. However, reading Schneiers article made it clear to me that not all my passwords may really be as secure as I thought they would be, so it’s time to overhaul these.

In addition, I’ve been using some passwords for more than one site (though not for critical/important ones), to ease the mental cost of having to remember particular passwords for some sites. On the other hand, some time ago, I already started using a password manager to store my passwords, synchronizing the db over several installations. So, the cost for using unique passwords is lower as it used to be, so I’m going to correct that error, too.

What this amounts to at the end of the day, though, is a really old lesson: security is a permanent issue not a one-time shot. What once might have been enough security measure might be totally insufficient soon.

Summary Please use a password store like keepassxc which you can use on multiple devices and which can generate random passwords for you. The more characters you use, the better. Don’t use the same password on a second site.

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