Data Science is Hard: Anomalies and What to Do About Them

:mconley‘s been looking at tab spinners to try and mitigate their impact on user experience. That’s when he noticed something weird that happened last October on Firefox Developer Edition:


It’s a spike a full five orders of magnitude larger than submission volumes for a single build have ever been.

At first I thought it was users getting stuck on an old version. But then :frank noticed that the “by submission date” of that same graph didn’t tally with that hypothesis:


Submissions from Aurora (what the Firefox Developer Edition branch is called internally) 51 tailed of when Aurora 52 was released in exactly the way we’ve come to expect. Aurora 52 had a jump mid-December when we switched to using “main” pings instead of “saved-session” pings to run our aggregates, but otherwise everything’s fine heading into the end of the year.

But then there’s Aurora 51 rising from the dead in late December. Some sort of weird re-adoption update problem? But where are all those users coming from? Or are they actually users? These graphs only plot ping volumes.

( Quick refresher: we get anonymous usage data from Firefox users via “pings”: packets of data that are sent at irregular intervals. A single user can send many pings per day, though more than 25 in a day is a pretty darn chatty. )

At this point I filed a bug. It appeared as though, somehow, we were getting new users running Aurora 51 build 20161014.

:mhowell popped the build onto a Windows machine and confirmed that it was updating fine for him. Anyone running that build ought not to be running it for long as they’d update within a couple of hours.

At this point we’d squeezed as much information as the aggregated data could give us, so I wandered off closer to the source to get deeper answers.

First I double-checked that what we were seeing in aggregate was what the data actually showed. Our main_summary dataset confirmed what we were seeing was not some weird artefact… but it also showed that there was no increase in client numbers:


A quick flip of the query and I learned that a single “client” was sending tens of thousands of pings each and every day from a long-dead non-release build of Firefox Developer Edition.

A “client” in this case is identified by “client_id”, a unique identifier that lives in a Firefox profile. Generally we take a single “client” to roughly equal a single “user”, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes a single user may have multiple profiles (one at work, one at home, for instance). Sometimes multiple users may have the same profile (an enterprise may provision a specific Firefox profile to every terminal).

It seemed likely we were in the second case: one profile, many Firefox installs.

But could we be sure? What could we learn about the “client” sending us this unexpectedly-large amount of data?

So I took a look.

First, a sense of scaleoutput_11_0

This single client began sending a few pings around November 15, 2016. This makes sense, as Aurora 51 was still the latest version at that time. Things didn’t ramp up until December when we started seeing over ten thousand pings per day. After a lull during Christmas it settled into what appeared to be some light growth with a large peak on Feb 17 reaching one hundred thousand pings on just that day.

This is kinda weird. If we assume some rule-of-thumb of say, two pings per user per day, then we’re talking fifty thousand users running this ancient version of Aurora. What are they doing with it?

Well, we deliberately don’t record too much information about what our users do with their browsers. We don’t know what URLs are being visited, what credentials they’re using, or whether they prefer one hundred duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck.

But we do know for how long the browser session lasted (from Firefox start to Firefox shutdown), so let’s take a look at that:output_23_0

Woah. Over half of the sessions reported by the pings were exactly 215 seconds long. Two minutes and 35 seconds.

It gets weirder. It turns out that these Aurora 51 builds are all running on the same Operating System (Windows XP, about which I’ve blogged before), all have the same addon installed (Random Agent Spoofer, though about 10% also have Alexa Traffic Rank), none have Aurora 51 set to be their default browser, none have application updates enabled, and they come from 418 different geographical locations according to the IP address of the submitters (top 10 locations include 5 in the US, 2 in France, 2 in Britain, and one in Germany).

This is where I would like to report the flash of insight that had me jumping out of the bath shouting Eureka.

But I don’t have one.

Everyone mentioned here and some others besides have thrown their heads at this mystery and can’t come up with anything suitably satisfying. Is it a Windows XP VM that is distributed to help developers test their websites? Is it an embedded browser in some popular piece of software with broad geographic appeal? Is someone just spoofing us by setting their client ids the same? If so, how did they spoof their session lengths?

To me the two-minute-and-thirty-five-second length of sessions just screams that this is some sort of automated process. I’m worried that Firefox might have been packaged into some sort of botnet-type-thingy that has gone out and infected thousands of hosts and is using our robust network stack to… to do what?

And then there’s the problem of what to do about it.

On one hand, this is data from Firefox. It arrived properly-formed, and no one’s trying to attack us with it, so we have no need to stop it entering our data pipeline for processing.

On the other hand, this data is making the Aurora tab spinner graph look wonky for :mconley, and might cause other mischief down the line.

It leads us to question whether we care about data that’s been sent to use by automated processes… and whether we could identify such data if we didn’t.

For now we’re going to block this particular client_id’s data from entering the aggregate dataset. The aggregate dataset is used by to display interesting stuff about Firefox users. Human users. So we’re okay with blocking it.

But all Firefox users submit data that might be useful to us, so what we’re not going to do is block this problematic client’s data from entering the pipeline. We’ll continue to collect and collate it in the hopes that it can reveal to us some way to improve Firefox or data collection in the future.

And that’s sadly where we’re at with this: an unsolved mystery, some unanswered questions about the value of automated data, and an unsatisfied sense of curiosity.