You are being stalked…by your browser

It does sound akin to a conspiracy theory but we all know it’s true. I am sure most of us see how we are being tracked online: you visit a site, say, Yatra or Makemytrip to check air ticket prices. Pretty soon every website you visit has ads for holiday packages, air tickets, hotel bookings (exactly for the city you searched) and so on. I am guessing most of you will know that cookies, little bits of code stored on your browser, make this possible.

So far so good – if I was very privacy conscious, I could simply turn off cookies or choose ‘delete cookies every time I close browser’ or manually delete cookies. But there is a new player on the block– it’s called fingerprinting. Fingerprinting allows ad companies to look at your machine configuration including your plug ins, languages you use, operating system version, flash and java versions and so on -without leaving any cookies.

A study by EFF found that websites are able to track at least 18.8 bits of information from our machines.That may sound like very little, but it isn’t.

Example: here is the information that being transmitted by my browser as I was typing this (blurred and not complete for obvious reasons).

browser fingerprinting

What is really interesting is that my test result also showed that my browser was unique in the over 4 million browsers that ran the same test. You can see that my browser contains so much information that is specific to me. There are so many variables within each browser (plug in versions, flash version, Java VM, audio and video related, and so on) that, as per an excellent EFF study, 94.2% of browsers have a combination that is almost as unique as a fingerprint.

And obviously, once ‘they’ can identify you – you are ripe for picking!  Ads for tickets, promotions, products, etc. can be all be customized.You can check here your own web fingerprint that your browser is sharing.

All of this may not sound that harmful; it could even be good if this information is used to provide customized ads or context specific promotions (sale on shoes when I want to buy shoes, etc.). But remember- once someone has so much information about you, it can be used in multitude of ways. Someone can replicate your machine and research bomb making, for instance. There, you’re toast! Or a disgruntled employee can release your browser history on the web. Even if it happens rarely, we should have the right to protect our own privacy.

Most of the legislation on privacy is currently structured around cookies, but fingerprinting is barely covered by any of it. So far it is a unique opportunity for companies to make a lot of money.

Currently there are a couple of solutions that claim to work against fingerprinting. You can install something like Ghostery or  Abine’s “DoNotTrackMe” on your machine. You can also use Tor Browser , which is closest to a foolproof method you can get – but it’s not very pleasant and slows down your browsing considerably.

If you are nerd enough and are interested in the underlying math, read the fairly detailed study conducted by Electronic Frontier Foundation here

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