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What is Browser Fingerprinting?

Published: 2023-11-10

Written By Owen Crisp

Like humans, browsers have their own unique "fingerprints"; used to collect information on the users browser and network device. Fingerprinting of a browser can be used to track a users activities, creating an online persona used to target specific advertisements by building almost a track record of visited sites and points of interest. It's this data that is valuable, if a site can more specifically target its advertisements to you the success of those adverts is likely to be much higher. This does infringe on privacy, in this piece we'll be diving deeper into fingerprinting, what it's used for, and some methods of concealing this. Research from 2020 found at least a quarter of the 10,000 largest used websites run fingerprinting scripts in the background.

How Fingerprinting Works

Browser fingerprinting becomes feasible through websites executing specific scripts in the background of your browser. Identifying whether a website is gathering your personal data proves challenging as fingerprinting scripts closely resemble legitimate scripts, known as APIs, integral to the website's functionality. Deprived of these scripts, a website would function unpredictably. The gathered attributes are amalgamated into a "hash" or a digital fingerprint.

Websites amass a substantial amount of information about their visitors with the intent of recognising their fingerprints in the future. This enables the categorisation of users into specific groups with similar digital fingerprints, facilitating targeted advertising efforts. Typically, websites employ three methods to accumulate data about visitors' search history, preferences, and hobbies.

More on Fingerprinting

Fingerprints are almost entirely unique to each and every user. A study shown here discovered that similarities are only shown "only one in 286,777 other browsers will share the same fingerprint as another user".Websites will use a variety of methods and scripts to collect the information and build the fingerprint, totalling to over 70+ individual components that can all be pieced together to build a fingerprint. This fingerprint leaves behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs, allowing you to be traced via your previously visited sites. Fingerprinting itself lends to at least a 90% accuracy when identifying users. Some of the popular components used in building this fingerprint include:

💻 User Agent: This includes information such as the browser, the version, and operating system. This allows the website to determine exactly what you're using to access the site and optimise accordingly.

🍪 Cookies: Smaller byte-sized information chunks websites store about your browser. These are primarily used to help a website remember you. For example, remembering a favourite item or keeping a basket full if you navigate away from a site. It's important not to confuse these with fingerprinting, as cookies are regulated (having to ask for permission to be stored as by law now) and can be deleted/refused. Cookies work with the user for convenience as opposed to being used as an identifier.

🕐 Time Zone: What time zone the user is reaching the site from. This allows the site to determine time-conscious products, giving them the power to know where you are and target specifically to that part of the world.

Sites will also know from the fingerprint:

  • The language you are using to view the page in.
  • Any installed extensions on your browser.
  • The processor you use inside your device, down to the make and model.
  • Whether or not you are using an ad-blocker in the browser, if so which one.
  • The resolution and colour depth of the monitor you are viewing on.

The Value of the Fingerprint

The value of a fingerprint depends highly on who it leads to. Advertisers and website owners love data and the value it provides. Browser fingerprints are a goldmine for tracking user behavior. It's used for analytics, helping businesses understand user demographics, preferences, and improving their services. Almost every website will collect this information in order to tailor your viewing experience. For example, if you've been browsing for a holiday abroad you might find that advertisements become increasingly more specific towards certain locations or deals. This in turn allows the site to push more relevant content to you, generating both higher ad revenue and affiliate money from those.

Sites may go even further than this, using your location to tailor prices to you depending on your location or even devices used. Users using a more premium device might experience higher prices for products based on the assumption that owning those products correlates to them having higher income. Online merchants will set your pricing due to your location. If fingerprinting shows that you live in an affluent area, you may see your in-browser pricing increase.

Guarding Your Fingerprint

Your browser fingerprint is a compilation of information about your device, browser version, plugins, and more. Think of a fingerprint somewhat like a digital ID card that websites use to recognise and track you. By concealing this fingerprint, you reclaim a bit of your online privacy. It's about minimising the digital breadcrumbs you leave behind as you navigate the web. Concealing it also makes it harder for advertisers to build a precise profile of your interests, resulting in fewer targeted ads.

Should you chose to knuckle down on your own browsing privacu, there are a number of things you can do to conceal your browser fingerprint and protect your online privacy.

Using a privacy-focused browser: There are a number of browsers that are designed to protect your privacy, such as Incognition, Dolphin-anty, or Brave. These browsers use a variety of techniques to make it difficult for websites to fingerprint your device. We previously spoke more on these in another post, you can find that here. As well as being used for multi account management, these can also be used to help monitor and improve your online privacy.

Install browser extensions: There are a number of browser extensions that can help you to conceal your browser fingerprint, such as Privacy Badger and NoScript. These extensions block websites from accessing certain types of information about your device and browser configuration.

Use a VPN or Proxy: A VPN or a proxy routes your traffic through a server in another location. This makes it difficult for websites to track your IP address and other identifying information. This might be the perfect time to check out the plethora of proxy offerings on the dashboard.

In conclusion, browser fingerprinting is a powerful tool that can be used to track users across the web. While it can be used for legitimate purposes, such as fraud detection and personalisation, it can also be used to target users with advertising and create detailed profiles of their online behaviour.

There are a number of things that users can do to conceal their browser fingerprint and protect their online privacy, such as using a privacy-focused browser, installing browser extensions, and using a VPN or proxy.

Here are some additional tips for guarding your browser fingerprint:

Use a variety of devices and browsers. The more diverse your browser fingerprint is, the more difficult it is for websites to track you. Keep your software up to date. Software updates often include security patches that can help to protect your devices from fingerprinting scripts.

By taking these steps, you can help to protect your privacy online and make it more difficult for websites to track your activity.

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