Privacy is an ongoing issue worldwide. The pervasive nature of technology allows the easy collection of private information. Additionally, people unwittingly share personal information on social media, email correspondence, and other online platforms.
Companies take advantage of collecting an extensive database of private information. By analyzing your online activities, websites can create targeted ads. An example is when you browse a particular product on an online shopping website. Then, you'll see ads for similar products when visiting an entirely different site.
A more nefarious purpose of collecting your data is to offer it to advertisers and other interested parties. Facebook is known to sell your data to advertisers. There are several ways that websites collect your data while browsing. Here are a few:
Common Methods of Tracking
One of the most common methods of obtaining your data is by using cookies. Cookies are small text files on your computer which contains information that can help websites improve your experience.
Your browser downloads cookies every time you visit sites. When you revisit a website, it can examine the cookies on your computer and create a customized experience. It can identify whether you are a new visitor or not. Additionally, cookies can collect information such as your browsing habits, interests, and even spending.
Another way to monitor you online is through your IP address. An IP address is a string of numbers that identifies your device on a computer network. It is essential to connect to the Internet. Imagine it as a unique address that points to your computer. It is possible to monitor your activities using your IP address. Additionally, with a bit of effort, third-parties can track what websites you visit, your online accounts, and, to an extent, your geographic location.
However, there are working ways to maintain privacy. Regularly deleting cookies helps minimize collection of your information. Moreover, using virtual private network allows you to hide your real IP address.
On the other hand, there is a method which can identify you on the Internet. And it is much more complicated to avoid.
What is Browser Fingerprint?
The fingerprint is still one of the unique characteristics of a human body. It uniquely identifies you as an individual. Police investigations use it to identify criminals. Authorities use it to create your unique profile for security.
It turns out that browsers also have a collection of data that can identify it uniquely. This browser fingerprint is unique enough to identify you against billions of users online. Your browser sends multiple information in its header every time you visit a website. It contains the type of browser, type of language, browser version, and other information.
Here's an example of a typical browser header:
Running a test on Panopticlick reveals the extensive collection of information about the browser. Here's a look:
Data such as plugins, timezone, language, system fonts, and others are visible. Note that websites also collect hashes of canvas and WebGL. Computers use canvas and WebGL to render 2d and 3d images. It can create a unique string of characters called hashes.
The combination of this information, and more allows unique identification of the browser. The info above remains mostly unchanged for a long time. Deleting cookies and using virtual private network will not protect the browser from having a fingerprint.
The Purpose of Browser Fingerprint
What exactly is the purpose of unique identification? Some banks and other financial institutions use it as another layer of security. They may pair your bank profile with your browser's fingerprint during online banking. They can alert you when a different browser fingerprint tries to access your account.
Even pornographic sites and dating platforms use it to identify their users uniquely. Pornographic sites may use it to detect stolen credentials of their users. Dating platforms use it to prevent attackers from creating multiple profiles for social engineering purposes.
Any methods of collecting personal data open it to abuse. Cookies and IP addresses are somewhat controllable. However, browser fingerprints are "hidden" identifiers.
Advertisers and similar entities can still track your online activities even with the best privacy settings. Companies can still sell this data for profit. Worse, targeted attacks using malicious software can use browser fingerprints.
Browser fingerprint is still an ongoing research interest among computer scientists. They are even beginning to understand its implications and effects. Naturally, people think that they can avoid the identification by using different browsers on their computer. A recent study proves that this does not work.
A new method created by Yinzhi Cao, a computer science professor at Lehigh University, identifies 99.24 percent of users across different browsers. That means, it can identify the same fingerprint even if the user is using multiple browsers.
It expands the method by AmIUnique on fingerprint identification. Aside from the typical information collected by the great fingerprinting system, it receives additional information about your computer. Cao wrote scripts that identify audio stack, graphics card, and CPU. In total, it collects 29 features to create cross-browser fingerprints.
How to Protect yourself?
Currently, there is no one efficient way of avoiding browser fingerprint. In reality, it is cumbersome to change these settings just to modify your fingerprint. Researchers are still conducting studies to understand and develop solutions to opt-out it fully. There are a few ways that you can minimize your identification.
Of all the browsers tested, Tor proves to be the most effective in protecting its fingerprint. The browser works slightly different than a typical browser. Instead of directly communicating with the server, it uses networks of relays to bounce your communication signal to the servers. It prevents websites from tracking your online activities.
You can use your regular browser for casual online surfing. Then, use Tor for more sensitive activities. However, take note of the risks as Tor is also commonly used to access the dark web.
The extra steps may be a hassle to casual users, but it is necessary if you want to protect your privacy. They are flexible enough to adjust to different websites that you visit.
Using plugins alone is not a fool-proof solution. Install an efficient anti-malware solution. It adds a layer of security.
A good option is MalwareFox. You can use it as your primary anti-malware program. Additionally, it protects your system while you are surfing online. It blocks ads, toolbars, and spyware from running on your system. MalwareFox also examines any downloaded files as these may contain scripts as well. You can schedule a regular scan to ensure full protection.
Privacy is a hot topic in a technology-driven society. You must take extra steps to ensure that your information is safe. You should be knowledgeable of any new trends in data collection. At the end of the day, awareness is invaluable in fighting against privacy breach.