Information in this post regarding workarounds and long-term solutions has been superseded in Privacy Browser 3.12 by access to WebView’s DevTools. I leave the original post for historical reasons and because it might be of interest to some readers.
As mentioned is several places on this website and in the app, there are some negative implications of using Android’s WebView to render web pages in Privacy Browser. The purpose of this post is to describe one of these downsides, explain the mitigations that are currently being taken, and describe the permanent solution that will be implemented in the future.
When any app uses Android’s WebView to load a web page, WebView attaches an extra header, named
One of the web tracking technologies that Privacy Browser is designed to mitigate is browser fingerprinting. Any piece of information the browser sends a web server that makes it stick out from the crowd increases the ability of the web server to uniquely fingerprint the browser. Including the app ID in the header, especially as long as Privacy Browser has a small market share, increases the chance that the total information sent to the server is unique.
For the Standard version of Privacy Browser the app ID is “com.stoutner.privacybrowser.standard”. The following is a log from www.stoutner.com that shows what information Privacy Browser <= 1.8 transmits to a web server (note that the User Agent has been changed from the default to “PrivacyBrowser/1.0”).
GET / HTTP/1.1|Host:www.stoutner.com|Connection:keep-alive|Cache-Control:max-age=0|Upgrade-Insecure-Requests:1|User-Agent:PrivacyBrowser/1.0|Accept:text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,image/webp,*/*;q=0.8|Accept-Encoding:gzip, deflate|Accept-Language:en-US|X-Requested-With:com.stoutner.privacybrowser.standard
Google doesn’t want to make it easy to get rid of the X-Requested-With header. However, there is a mechanism for replacing header information. This doesn’t allow a program to stop sending the X-Requested-With header, but it does allow a program to replace the app ID with a null value. Beginning with Privacy Browser 1.9, the following information will be sent in the headers:
GET / HTTP/1.1|Host:www.stoutner.com|Connection:keep-alive|Upgrade-Insecure-Requests:1|User-Agent:PrivacyBrowser/1.0|x-requested-with:|Accept:text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,image/webp,*/*;q=0.8|Accept-Encoding:gzip, deflate|Accept-Language:en-US
The Problems with the Workaround
The first problem with this workaround is that sending
X-Requested-With: is not the same as not sending it at all. There are only going to be a few browsers that send
X-Requested-With: as a header, so for fingerprinting purposes this workaround is only slightly better than including the app ID.
GET /wp-content/themes/twentysixteen/style.css?ver=4.5.3 HTTP/1.1|Host:www.stoutner.com|Connection:keep-alive|Cache-Control:max-age=0|User-Agent:PrivacyBrowser/1.0|Accept:text/css,*/*;q=0.1|Referer:https%3a//www.stoutner.com/|Accept-Encoding:gzip, deflate|Accept-Language:en-US|X-Requested-With:com.stoutner.privacybrowser.standard|If-None-Match:"10d4b-535f10e3fb580-gzip"|If-Modified-Since:Thu, 23 Jun 2016 12%3a18%3a46 GMT
This is a problem for every browser that uses Android’s WebView. For example, Lightning 4.3.3 behaves the same way as Privacy Browser >= 1.9: initial web requests include “X-Requested-With:” and resource requests include “X-Requested-With:acr.browser.lightning”.
Option to Use the Default Behavior
Even though the spec allows headers with null values, some websites don’t like it, usually causing them to fail to load. Privacy Browser 3.11 has the option to revert to the default behavior of sending the app ID, either app-wide or as a domain setting. Because this value is set when a URL is first loaded, and is not changed when a site is refreshed or loaded from the navigation history, changes to the X-Requested-With header may not take effect until after the app is restarted. Privacy Browser will restart automatically when changing the behavior app-wide in the settings. When changed in domain settings, the user will need to either restart the app or load the domain in question in a tab that doesn’t currently have it loaded.
The Long-Term Solution
There is a provision in WebView to bypass the default web loading functions by manually acquiring the information using HttpURLConnection and feeding it into WebView. This would allow the complete removal of the X-Requested-With header. However, making sure that all possible types of HTTP communication are handled correctly would be complex and any initial implementation would likely result in buggy behavior.
As a better solution, in the 4.x series Privacy Browser will switch from using Android’s default WebView to a custom rolling fork named Privacy WebView. This will allow for the complete removal of the X-Requested-With header.