Are You Being Fingerprinted Online?
Cookies are crumbling. Those bits of code that Web sites deposit on your hard drive are becoming less useful to marketers, and others wanting to track what you do online. But there's a new web tracking technology that can't be easily detected or blocked. Here's what you need to know about browser fingerprinting...
What is Browser Fingerprinting?
Web cookies have been around for twenty years; they can be used to customize your online experience and save you time. However, online marketers, social networks, and others have learned how to use them to their advantage as well. The good news is that these little tidbits are becoming less valuable to those third parties, as browser technology and privacy initiatives advance.
The bad news is that they’ve come up with a replacement technology that some call “browser fingerprinting.” And the steps you may take to avoid cookies don’t work against fingerprinting.
Let's take a step back. I’ve always said that cookies are not inherently bad; in fact, many people’s favorite features of the Web won’t work without cookies. (See related: A Closer Look at Cookies.) But cookies are a mixed blessing. They can be used to build anonymous profiles of a user's activity across the web, and that bothers some.
As more users feel concerns about privacy, they have either blocked cookies entirely or limited the amount of time that passes before cookies are deleted. And there's also the concept of private or incognito browsing now. These options are built into the privacy settings of all the major Web browsers. See my related article about Private Browsing.
Others have turned to browser add-ons such as Ghostery to learn who is tracking them and selectively block certain cookies. My opinion is that these tools do more harm than good, because they lead many users to believe that ALL cookies are bad. I also object in principle to the notion that cookies are used to "track" the activities of web users. In the vast majority of cases, cookies are simply a tool to help marketers and others deliver ads and/or content that are more relevant, without personally identifying the user. But I digress...
Have You Been Fingerprinted?
The new fingerprinting technology does not put anything on your hard drive. Instead, it relies on information that your Web browser sends to the sites you visit. This information (which is a standard part of Internet communication protocol) includes the names and version numbers of your operating system and browser; your browser add-ons; the time zone set on your device; screen size and color depth; system fonts; and cookie status (accept/reject).
Your browser sends most of this information so that the receiving site knows what sort of Web content it should return to your browser. It’s truly amazing how many different versions of a Web page can be sent to users on the fly, each customized to the data handling and display capabilities of a user’s machine. But the information sent by your browser also identifies your machine nearly as well as a unique cookie does.
You can reduce your browser fingerprint and thereby increase your quasi-anonymity. After I switched to private (or “incognito”) browsing mode, the Panopticlick Test said that 1 in about 1.5 million browsers have the same fingerprint as mine. My fingerprint was twice as common, so I was only half as identifiable.
Browser fingerprints are not stored on users’ devices, so users can’t delete them. There are no options built into browsers that give users control over the fingerprint info they send (except for the private/incognito browsing mode mentioned). And there are no add-ons that can tell you who is capturing your browser fingerprint.
Perhaps there will be such tools in the future. But like cookie control, fingerprint control will involve a tradeoff of functionality in exchange for privacy. The companies that use fingerprinting are not admitting it, for the most part. They don’t want the attention of privacy advocates.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 5 Jul 2013
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Are You Being Fingerprinted Online? (Posted: 5 Jul 2013)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved