What is Browser Fingerprinting?

Browser Fingerprinting
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Browser fingerprinting is a way to track users by evaluating details about their web browser and noting down all the unique features. If a browser is unique, the user can be tracked across websites and platforms for extremely long periods of time.
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In the past, websites mostly used two methods to track users: checking the IP address and by implementing cookies. An IP address will generally remain static and reveal a small amount of data points such as the predicted location and ISP, making it a good target for online tracking purposes.

 

Cookies, in general, add a small sample of code and data into the browser that usually makes it easier to continue using the website. For example, a cookie could keep you logged in. They can, however, also collect data about the user or install tracking features that will help the website monitor further activity.

 

Online tracking, however, is constantly evolving. Browser fingerprinting emerged as another option that can help websites monitor the activity of their users.

How does browser fingerprinting work?

While browsers may seem like relatively simple software, they have such an enormous list of small changing parts that they can generate billions of unique combinations of features. Every browser has a version, runs on some operating system, has a set screen resolution, usually has plugins or extensions, language settings and even time zones.

 

Finally, each browser is a unique piece of software by itself. Whether it’s Mozilla Firefox or Tor Browser, even that simple name is somewhat identifying.

 

All of the above and more can be combined to generate unique browser fingerprints. Even with just the listed features, it would be possible online fingerprinting tracking techniques to identify users.

 

Initially, however, none of these data points seem particularly alarming. We should note that each of the data points narrows down the possible users. If we retrieve some specific browser version, then that removes a lot of “possible suspects” out of the list of fingerprints.

 

Additional data such as an operating system yet again narrows down the list. Browser extensions (and the versions of all them) significantly narrows down our list even further. In the end, browser fingerprinting works because everyone is running a slightly different application.

 

For reference, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that only 1 in 286,777 browsers will share the same set of features, making digital fingerprinting incredibly accurate.

 

Browser fingerprinting is unique in the fact that common user privacy techniques do little to prevent identification. While proxies and changing IP addresses can add to some anonymity, a good browser fingerprinting script will still be able to identify the user.

 

Private browsing sessions will also do little to prevent such website function. In other words, it’s a completely new and unique method of web tracking. New tools have to be deployed to avoid browser fingerprinting.

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What are the browser fingerprinting techniques?

A digital fingerprint can be collected through several ways. In large part, all of them revolve around collecting user data by making some sort of request where the machine has to reveal some details about itself.

 

Two common methods are audio fingerprinting and canvas fingerprinting. Both use a code element installed into the source code to acquire data. 

 

While some more extreme methods such as clock skew exist, these are barely ever used. It’s unlikely that it would be worth preventing such fringe cases of browser fingerprinting.

Audio fingerprinting

One of the easiest methods to understand as it simply plays a sound or a track. Before a user’s device can play the sound, it has to deliver some data about its hardware and software configuration.

 

More advanced fingerprinting scripts will use something known as the Oscillator Node constructor through the web audio API. They can collect such a significant amount of data that it can, at times, itself serve as a machine fingerprint.

 

As a data collection method, it’s still not as popular as some of the other types. It has been becoming more popular in recent years, though.

Canvas fingerprinting

A lot of modern websites use HTML5 to display their content. Through the HTML5 API, Canvas can be used to draw graphics and animations. Some time ago that had been its only purpose.

 

Nowadays, however, Canvas is used as one of the most popular browser fingerprinting scripts. In short, it draws a canvas image, but due to inherent differences in rendering capabilities (both hardware and software), each result will not be the same.

 

Canvas fingerprinting, as a result, relies heavily on working out the details about a browser, OS, graphics card, and many other device settings, through the use of the aforementioned rendering differences.

 

It’s popular primarily due to its efficiency and ease of use. Since most browsers nowadays rely on both HTML5 and JavaScript code to display web server content, both of which are used in this device fingerprinting method, all the necessary tools are there by default.

 

Additionally, outside of requiring some knowledge of JavaScript code, it’s fairly easy to implement. After all, all it does is load a simple image in the background to retrieve data.

 

We should note that there’s an offshoot browser fingerprinting method called WebGL. WebGL fingerprinting uses Javascript functions and special effects code to render an image, which reveals the device’s graphic system.

Other methods

There’s a multitude of ways to collect a browser fingerprint. These can range from asking the user permission to use their microphone and camera, which can reveal all internal media components, to extreme cases such as clock skew.

 

Clock skew is based on the fact that signals from electrical components arrive at uneven intervals due to temperature differences. Due to changing daily temperatures, there’s always some apparent discrepancy, which can unveil the location of the device and several other features. It is, however, unlikely that you will run into clock skew browser fingerprinting anytime soon.

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Why is browser fingerprinting used?

Browser fingerprinting is just like other user tracking or data collection techniques. It generates data that can be used for business purposes.

 

For example, one of the primary use cases might be creating a unique user ID to track them across multiple sites. Such tracking provides businesses with the information on the potential customer’s actions, frequency of visits, etc. All of these metrics can be used to optimize marketing.

 

Additionally, such tracking provides the opportunity to deliver personalized ads. As long as the browser fingerprint remains stable, a business can create content tailored directly to it. With all the additional data that can be gathered through other means, such as Google Analytics, a browser fingerprint can greatly enhance the effectiveness of tailored content.

 

Finally, data brokers could potentially enhance their current datasets with a user’s browser fingerprint. Every small data point can increase the potential insights that one particular dataset has.

Ways to prevent browser and device fingerprinting

Browser fingerprinting relies on uniqueness. In simple terms, if your user agent, browser settings, and other data can be combined into a unique fingerprint, then you can be tracked. There are tools out there that can be used to evaluate your current fingerprint.

 

As such, the best way to prevent browser fingerprinting, outside of installing an anti-printing browser extension or blocking HTML5 canvas, is to create something as generic as possible. That means removing most active plugins, setting the device’s local language to English, updating everything to the newest version, selecting a generic browser type, etc.

 

There are some settings you’re unlikely to be able to change. Such things may include screen resolution or browser language. To beat a fingerprinting script, therefore, you should be aiming to minimize uniqueness in a way that doesn’t impact regular browsing to reduce the power of this web tracking method.

 

Additionally, avoid using software such as Tor Browser. They are used fairly rarely and, if you don’t use all the security features inbuilt into it, may actually add to uniqueness rather than detract from it.

 

In the end, the best way to prevent browser fingerprinting is to make your software look as generic as possible. Other methods can work for short periods of time or, sometimes, even add to the uniqueness of your browser, making things worse.

 

Unfortunately, there’s no reason to expect browser fingerprinting to stop. There’s no legislation surrounding it and since personal data is extremely valuable to marketers, businesses will continue to do so. So, it’s currently completely legal and things are unlikely to change soon.

Conclusion

Browser fingerprinting is a new method for user tracking. Old school methods such as obfuscating an IP address add a little to privacy, but aren’t enough to beat browser fingerprinting.

 

To avoid being tracked, your best bet is to reduce the unique features of your browser to produce user agents and other data that matches as many other users on the internet as possible.

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