What is browser fingerprinting and how is it the biggest threat to our privacy?

While accessing the internet, we take several steps to protect our privacy. Some users use the incognito mode, while others use VPN or the Tor, and there are even some users who use certain privacy-friendly web browsers or search engines to surf the web and search for things online respectively. But in spite of all that, the organizations that want to collect our data has come across a subtle way to do that, and it is through something called fingerprinting. Thus, in the same way, browser fingerprinting can help the organizations collect data by observing several patterns, and recognizing a user from around a hundred thousand users or even more. It all, however, depends on the amount of data collected.

Collecting data might is undoubtedly a threat to our privacy if the organizations collect data aggressively, however, if it is done with proper control to show targeted advertisements or for research purposes, it is still acceptable. As users are becoming more aware of data theft and are taking privacy on a serious note, several organizations are resorting to numerous intelligent methods of collect data, and using the method of fingerprinting is one of them.

Today, I will talk about fingerprinting in the simplest way, so that everybody can have an idea of what it exactly is, and I am quite sure, it is going to be interesting to know everything about this method most organizations are resorting to, to collect data and track users.

So, without any further delay, let’s get started with, what is fingerprinting, and why it is actually called so.

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Why fingerprinting is called so?

If you are fond of or have at least watched crime shows, you already know that the forensic experts do their best to capture as many pieces of evidence as possible from the crime scene, and one significant element of all these pieces of evidence is nothing other than fingerprints. Yes, I am talking about human fingerprints.

The forensic experts search for fingerprints in a crime scene, just like a cat follows the smell of fish. As fingerprints are unique to one person, finding fingerprints of a person in a crime scene refers to the presence of that person in the crime scene, which is an important clue, and that way further investigation can be carried on.

Just like the remarkable characteristic of human fingerprints to be unique, fingerprinting in the digital world also refers to some relation with being unique and the fun lies in there. Whenever you open a website on the internet, the website collects some usual data and additionally, it also collects some core attributes of your browser and computer system. The data collected will be used to recognize your system uniquely among several systems. That way, even if you are using a VPN, a proxy, or you are on incognito mode, where you are trying to mask your real identity, your browser or computer signature is still the same, and the websites you are visiting can understand, it is you.

How a browser fingerprint is generated? How it all works?

When we all visit a website to consume some content, or just to get some information, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Besides offering us the information that we were exactly looking for, a lot of tasks are taking place behind the scenes, and it is through the extra tasks that the websites are collecting the necessary information required for generating a unique browser fingerprint.

JavaScript is a very essential element today that powers the web, and it is exactly that same element that is being used, or I would say exploited by corporate bigwigs to generate browser fingerprints, that are next to impossible to stop them from generating.

When you visit a website and that is powered by JavaScript, which most websites already use these days, it collects a lot of information about you, or your computer, to be more precise. JavaScript enhances the functionality of a website, and to do that, it requires several bits of information that includes the resolution of the screen that you are using, the type of device that you are using. Hence the orientation of the screen, the operating system, the device manufacturer, the name of the web browser you are using or the user agent, it’s version; the default language set on your device, time zone of your device; the number of plugins that are installed on your current web browser, whether MS Office is installed, the Office applications that are installed, and many more.

Additionally, for the functionality of JavaScript, it can also understand, whether you are using the web browser actively, whether it is minimized, and if not, whether a mouse pointer is moving across the webpage. If that isn’t enough to uniquely identify a browser, and hence a computer, the JavaScipt running on a website can also run a font test, WebGL test, Canvas Test, among others that can be used to find out what graphics card you are using, and also get additional hardware information. 

Well, now it is highly unlikely that all the computers accessing the web will attribute the same set of information when that is collected by JavaScript running on a particular website. Besides all the bits of information, I just discussed that JavaScript can collect, the set of collected data can be expanded further to recognize your computer among a larger set of computers. It has also been seen that with around 30 sets of such bits of information one computer can be recognized among around 8.5 billion computers, which is a little more than the current world population.

After the data is collected, there is some sort of algorithm that generates a unique number that is the fingerprint of that web browser. Now, let’s find out, how you are tracked across the web using this fingerprinting mechanism. See: Top 7 Web browser to be used in 2020 on Desktop


How browser fingerprints follow you across the web?

Google Analytics or Facebook, or any other giant can easily track the users using the method of browser fingerprinting, even if you try mitigating all the ways that most websites use to track you. Let me give you a small example to help you understand how it all works.

Just consider, you have opened your Facebook account, saw the news feed, and that started using something else on the web. When you were using Facebook, it has generated the fingerprint from your system, and it is against your name or the ID that can help Facebook recognize it’s you. Now, if you visit a website that has a Facebook Like button, Facebook can generate the fingerprint too, on that website, and as you are surfing the website from the same browser, the fingerprint will match, and the game is over.

Even if you log out of Facebook every time, which is really annoying to most users, that is not going to help either. As it really doesn’t matter whether you are logged in or not, browser fingerprint proves to be one of the biggest threats to privacy in today’s world, when it comes to surfing the internet.  See: How to select an audio output device to route audio from Chrome


Why fingerprinting is a real threat?

Well, you might have already understood, why fingerprinting is a real threat to our privacy. Let me talk a little deeper.

It doesn’t matter whether you are using the incognito mode on your browser or not, as the fingerprint is not going to change, even if you are using the incognito mode. When it comes to cookies, which is also used to track users, the cookies can be deleted by the user, and it is completely in his hands. However, that is not an option when it comes to browser fingerprinting.

The fingerprint is being generated, even if you don’t know about it at all. When it comes to other ways to protect your privacy, taking the steps are in your hand. You just need to take the steps and you are safe. However, if you want to prevent the fingerprint from tracking you uniquely, the only thing that you can do is, become as less unique, as possible. What can you do is, use the computer without installing any programs, just like it is new. Well, that is just a hypothesis, as you will end up installing programs according to your requirements.

The possible steps to be less unique

Well, the only way to prevent websites from generating a unique browser fingerprint for your system is to be as less unique as possible. Try not to use any third-party plugins that only a few people use, and try keeping away such rare programs, as well. 

You can also use the Tor browser that prevents the canvas test, and it also recommends several ways to prevent the web services from recognizing your computer uniquely. But using the Tor browser isn’t always a great idea as the speed is painfully slow as Tor needs to bounce the web traffic across several nodes.

You can also block JavaScript on your web browser. But trust me, the web will be broken if you do that. JavaScript is so elementary these days, almost all the websites use this, and I am just mentioning it here, as it is a theoretical option. It isn’t at all a practical choice to block JavaScript on your web browser.

All the different ways to prevent websites from tracking you using browser fingerprints aren’t that feasible, as it is next to impossible to use the web and never break the rules at all. However, there are few ways of reducing the uniqueness of your system. Try not to use a very rare or not so well-known web browser like Vivaldi or Blisk, for example. You can also keep away Office apps that are not popular. If you can keep away those apps that aren’t used a lot, that can be helpful to make your system look less unique.

Fingerprinting is undoubtedly a cool technique that can uniquely recognize systems or you, at the end of the day. Just like Big Data is a cool thing that collects data, and it is used for research purposes or so, there is no denial of the fact that several organizations collect our data, only to show us ads, and murders our privacy in the long run. A similar thing happens with fingerprinting, as well.

So, that was all about browser fingerprinting that you should know. Do you have any questions? Feel free to comment on the same below.