Report: You can be Tracked Online, even without IP or Cookies
Researchers have found a way to track web users even if they switch web browsers. It could improve security but also weaken online privacy.
The researchers at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania were trying to find ways of improving fingerprinting. That's a way to attempt to identify an individual user (or at least their computer) without relying on single identifiers such as login details, browser cookies, or an IP address.
Instead, fingerprinting involves taking multiple pieces of information provided by a user's browser such as the browser name, it's version, whether they have an ad blocker running, what time zone they are on, and which plugins or extensions they have selected. While any one of these pieces of information will be the same among potentially tens of millions of users, with enough pieces of information, the specific combination will be rare if not unique.
Font Selection Among Identifying Factors
At the moment such fingerprinting is based entirely around browser data, meaning that if users switch to a different browser, they can no longer be tracked. That could make it possible to, for example, use one browser for everyday user and one for more sensitive or personal online activity.
The Lehigh research extends the idea to cover 36 pieces of information about the individual computer that are detectable by the browser but aren't dependent on the browser itself. These include everything from the specific type of processor in the computer to the selection of fonts the user has installed. (Source: fossbytes.com)
According to the researchers, when running tests on 1,903 computers over the course of three months, they had a 99.2 percent accuracy rate in identifying a particular computer. (Source: arstechnica.com)
Technique Morally Neutral
The researchers say that the technique is not inherently good or bad, but rather that it's down to how people choose to use it. For example, they note that online banks might use it to detect when somebody logs on to an account from a machine they don't normally use. That could help catch hackers even if they breach someone's home WiFi and thus have the 'normal' IP address.
On the other hand, the cross-browser fingerprinting could be used by websites to deliver personalized advertising, even when the user had deliberate changed browsers to try to avoid tracking.
What's Your Opinion?
Are you worried by the idea of cross-browser fingerprinting? Was it right of the researchers to carry out this work and publish the results? Could the technique by adopted for more positive purposes?
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