What Is Browser Fingerprinting And How You Can Avoid Being Tracked?
If you think you’re being tracked online, you’re not paranoid. There are corporations and government agencies actively trying to track each one of your moves.
You thought cookies were bad for your privacy? Well, now we have cookies on steroids. These scary new tracking tools called supercookies allow for more accurate tracking than ever. The worst thing is that you might not even know you have them.
But while we are obsessing over these big security breaches, a quieter issue might actually be doing more damage. Tracking experts now have a brand new method that puts all others to shame – Browser Fingerprinting. Using this extremely elusive technique, trackers can find out almost everything about you. Right from your browser type to the minutest details about your device, they can gather it all up in an instant. All these attributes are taken together to form what is called your digital footprint.
These attributes are used to define and identify individuals within a given geographic region. So, the more unique attributes you have in any network, the easier it is to identify you through browser fingerprinting. Now, you might think it is no big deal. But it really is. Here’s why.
How Does Browser Fingerprinting Compromise Your Privacy And Security?
Browser fingerprinting is a very ingenious way to track users for one simple reason. Whether you accept cookies or not, you will be using a browser. There is no way to browse the internet without, well, using a browser. Browsers offer a relatively discreet way of collecting data.
The core mechanism behind browser fingerprinting relies on the browser configuration. Most people do not change browser configurations once they have set it. This means that even if they are careful with cookie-based tracking, their browser configuration can still give them away. This works even when their IP address is anonymized.
Also, since there is no permission required to identify a device based on its user configuration, browser fingerprinting is free game. Further, through consistent profiling and tracking, it is possible to identify users even with homogenous groups.
This can be done by retrieving more specifications about users like screen settings, browser type, version, plugins used, etc. For a large number of users, these attributes allow their devices to be identified uniquely. Naturally, this is a privacy compromise and makes them susceptible to attacks.
Despite these considerations, fingerprinting also has its advantages. It is used for preventing click fraud and can be deployed for authenticating users. This is particularly useful for banking and financial services. With that said, browser fingerprinting is yet another tool in the tracker’s arsenal which can be heavily compromising for users.
Another recent development called cross-browser fingerprinting has expanded the horizons of this technique significantly. Earlier, browser fingerprinting was strictly based on single browsers. However, this new development has allowed trackers to track users across multiple browsers.
Can Browser Fingerprinting Be Done Legally?
The laws regarding browser fingerprinting remain in a legal grey area. Technically, fingerprinting is not allowed if the user has opted out of behavioral advertising is the opinion of Ari Schwartz former senior director for cybersecurity on the United States National Security Council.
Further, countermeasures against fingerprinting can be difficult. There are a few methods but none of them are as easy as deleting cookies. With the fight between anonymity-centric users and online advertisers coming to a head online, this technology can play a significant role.
How Can You Prevent Being Compromised By Browser Fingerprinting?
The trend for using generic configurations is already rising among privacy enthusiasts. They tweak their settings and plugins to represent common users and in doing so, can bypass fingerprinting. For cross-browser fingerprinting, Tor browsers are regarded as highly effective and efficient.
Users can also make use of tools like AmIUnique or Unique Machine to get a fairly accurate read of their browser configurations. The first of these works best for single browser fingerprinting while the second is meant for cross-browsers. Panopticlick is another online service which enables detecting browser fingerprints. This service is run by the EFF and so it is well regarded.
What Other Means Can I Use For Anonymizing Myself?
The best-paid VPN services on the market also work against browser fingerprinting. When used along with data encryption, it can be an effective way of avoiding identification. However, even these measures can leave you open to invisible trackers and pushed advertisements. Countering these requires the use of discreet ad blockers like Ghostery or uBlock Origin. For tracking, blockers like PrivacyBadger and DoNotTrackMe are a safe bet.
In addition to the above, certain plugins might be useful for minimizing exposure. Add-ons like NoScript and PrivacyBadger are useful for allowing only trusted scripts to be run. While making the correct modifications to suit their purpose can be tedious for everyday users, they can be very useful as well. That being said knowing how to modify the settings can come in handy in all manner of circumstances.
Online privacy has become a big deal all over the world. If you do not like your data being used without your consent, then knowing ways to protect yourself are important. Browser fingerprinting is just one of many such concerns which should be dealt with after due consideration and expert advice. Always remember - vigilance is the price for safety.