Tracking is a controversial and seemingly unavoidable part of using the internet today. For a long time, the majority of internet users were quite complacent when it came to their privacy. However, there is now a much greater awareness of the threats we face, and how easily we can mitigate them. As a result, lots of people are now making a point of only using internet browsers that come with some kind of anti-tracking measures in place or taking other steps to increase data safety.
It is easy enough for an internet browser to prevent websites from placing tracking cookies onto a device. However, those who are motivated to track people are becoming increasingly clever in how they go about it. The latest fad when it comes to the analyzing and tracking of internet users is browser or device fingerprinting.
What is Fingerprinting?
We are all familiar with the concept of fingerprints in the real world. They are the unique mark that we leave behind on everything that we touch. Internet fingerprinting follows similar principles.
Whenever you send a request to a website that request will be logged somewhere. Contained in among all the data in that request, including what you actually want the website to do, there is information about the device and the browser that sent the request. For example, the website will know your screen resolution to decide the size of the website that it should render for you. It will also know what type of browser and operating system you are using.
Trackers can then analyze this information, none of which is enough to identify you specifically to build up a profile of you as an anonymous individual. While there will obviously be a large number of people who are browsing the same websites through the same devices and the same browsers, there is also lots of data that makes each of those people unique, again without specifically identifying any of them.
By combining simple information like your browser user agent, your IP address, and the cookies that you are storing, it is actually surprisingly easy for someone to build up a profile of you. More importantly, where the same set of data is repeated elsewhere on the internet, trackers can be reasonably certain that each iteration of that same set of data is the same person.
What Can Marketers Learn?
As well as being able to spot your profile across the internet and, therefore, develop an idea of the kind of marketing you would be interested in, marketers are also interested in tracking you because even the seemingly insignificant information about your device can reveal a lot about you.
For example, if your user agent denotes an old phone and an outdated browser, that would generally imply that the user is not very tech-savvy or wealthy. Similarly, if your user agent shows that you are browsing from a brand-new iMac, that would imply that you might have the cash to spend.
Even your IP address can reveal information about your location, which can, in turn, tell marketers about your likely average earnings. If your ISP is different from your neighbors, and yours is notably cheaper than theirs, that information can be used as well. There is even an API that they can use to automatically find this information out for any given IP address.
Defending Against FIngerprinting
Another useful measure for minimizing fingerprinting is to avoid using a rare web browser. Any internet browser that gives off a very unique user agent is going to be very easy to fingerprint. You want to blend in with the rest of the crowd as much as possible and minimize the number of things that are unique about your device.
From a marketing perspective, it is easy to see the massive advantages of being able to track and identify individual users. The market does not need to know the specific identity of these users, they only need to know their psychological profile, and what sort of products and services they will be interested in. This has traditionally been done by tracking users across different websites and logging what they do. However, as people grow more aware of the pervasiveness of the tracking in their daily lives, many are reluctant to submit to it.
Fingerprinting is a technique that can be used even to profile those who have taken specific measures to prevent such profiling from taking place. There is also no way of a user giving informed consent for their data being used for fingerprinting. This presents ethical problems that marketers have little incentive to overcome.
Even without conventional tracking methods, smart marketers will be able to gain all the insights they need from the passive data that we share with the internet. Going forward, if you want to avoid being fingerprinted, you will need to take specific measures. For example, the developers of the FireFox browser have announced that FireFox will start blocking fingerprinting attempts in the near future.