Tech-talk: Browser fingerprinting - Threat to our privacy?

  • Wed,6 Nov 2019 10:24:01 AM

Nov 6, 2019

Ananth Prabhu G, PhD and Post Doctoral Fellow is a Professor in Sahyadri College of Engineering and Management. He is also the Cyber Law Trainer at the Karnataka Judicial Academy and Cyber Security Trainer at the Karnataka Police Academy.

Your phone is locked; and your computer kept on stand-by. You finally are able to get some rest and so you have a really nice, long nap after a day’s toil at work. 

But wait, did you actually think your locked phone and computer is safe and sound from any invaders to your privacy while you aren’t using it? Certainly not.

We live in a digitized environment where anybody could easily be tracked from anywhere and anytime, with the help of the daily browser you access. And from your browser one could track the websites you visit. Every move you make, your entire online behaviour can be tracked and traced and you wouldn’t even know. This kind of tracking from the internet is called Browser fingerprinting, something I’m sure many of you haven’t heard of. And it is totally okay, because this article will give you a clear idea on what this is and what you should do about it.

Before we get started on Browser fingerprinting, we need to know the basic elements that are being dealt with, i.e., the internet, a browser and a website or a webpage.

The Internet is literally the virtual world we are currently living in. Net, in short, is a world wide network of hundreds to millions of computers that are connected, where they can transfer or share data, communicate, or even with permission, access data on other computers. A web browser, on the other hand, is a widely used software application that is mostly built-in in computers and other digital devices.

It is used to visit websites and share information on the World Wide Web(www). A website, is a page or a collection of pages which consists of information from a specific domain to reach its target audience visiting these pages. Whatever you accessed via the internet at this moment to read this, is nothing but a website or a webpage. These three basic yet important elements work hand in hand when it comes to Browser fingerprinting and is inevitable.

So, what exactly is Browser Fingerprinting?

Here comes the real deal. Browser fingerprinting is a technique used to trace the ID (Identification) of a user who connects to the internet to access webpages, and each ID comes unique, so there is very small chance to have two or more ID’s tending to match. The ID’s being unique, a user can access your time zone, location, time of use, language, your browser version and the operating system being used. This might seem like a threat to your privacy, but it actually isn’t in the marketing and advertising industry. Fingerprinting of the browser is similar to an FBI or police investigation where they collect fingerprints to trace the criminal, whereas here, our browser activity is traced to identify a user’s unique ID.

Our advertisers love your data; based on customers and user’s data from which the browser provides, advertising industries make use of this information to increase their sales and promotion in the market. This helps companies bloom and grow at a quicker rate. To make this simpler, take for instance your search engine like Google. You search on the best brands to purchase cool wireless earphones and surf several web pages to find your match. And the next time you use Google search, the advertisement section will pop up ads based on your recent search history, and suggest you brands for your earphone purchase. International marketing sectors will create profiles based on your data and online activities.

Now all this does not necessarily mean that every detail of your personal data has been made use of, such as your home address which is way too personal to be used. The more valuable data the advertisers receive from your activity, the more accurate will they be able to provide you with appropriate advertisements and consequently increment their revenue. Browser fingerprinting is a major boon to the global advertising industries that has helped thousands of companies grow.

Not only the markets, but the banks too, are majorly benefitted by this technique. By fingerprinting, banks can detect potential frauds. For example, when a bank’s security system identifies that there has been another user accessing a bank account or that particular account has been accessed from different or multiple systems, further investigation will be held and the account will be freezed if necessary.

There are numerous ways to test the uniqueness your browser ID. A ton of software applications have been developed that can aid you into identifying your bowser ID, some of them including Panopticlick, AmIUnique and UniqueMachine. One of the highly recommended software is Panopticlick, a project built in the year 2010, where its new version not only tests for your identity, but also tells you how protected your system is, and if the system is vulnerable to any threats that could possibly invade into your privacy. Panopticlick has a vast database from which it compares and checks the uniqueness of your browser. If your browser is ‘unique’, then a tracker could identify your unique ID and anonymously track the websites you visit and your surfing routine. 
Can you defend Browser Fingerprinting?

As such, there isn’t any way in which you can completely dodge browser fingerprinting, since it has been a powerful technique of tracing user from the Internet, all around the world. But there are a few do’s you could try and implement although they might have a few setbacks:

1. Make use of Tor Browser

It is hard to track Tor users because of the standardized build up that shields its users from being traced. Tor prevents tracking and at the same time vigorously blocks JavaScript, but using Tor makes your work much slower compared to normal browsers.

2. Disabling JavaScript

As mentioned earlier, Tor helps disable JavaScript, but at the same time websites (most of them) depending on JavaScript will be prevented from working.

Although Browser fingerprinting makes a wide and positive impact in today’s digitized system, this tool has also gotten its own downhill that could be a threat to our privacy. And that is why we must be aware about the surrounding ear of Internet, where we ought to be thoughtful in usage.

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