Digital fingerprints: the sneaky new way to spy on internet users
A growing awareness among internet users around the world is that we are never alone. From Edward Snowden’s denunciation of illegal spying on Americans by the United States National Security Administration to reports on period trackers selling user data to advertisers, Internet users realized that their data was not secure. This prompted various ways in which we could protect our data – from enabling incognito mode to deleting tracking cookies that websites drop in a user’s browser. But as users implement better methods to secure their data, websites are coming up with some ingenious ways to better track it. In this glorified digital cat-and-mouse game, a new attack strategy quickly gained traction: fingerprinting.
A Washington Post Analysis found at least a third of the 500 websites surveyed, including CNN, Xvideos, WebMD and Thesaurus.com, use the digital fingerprint to target users. It’s a method of collecting data on a person’s device – whether it’s a phone, laptop, or tablet – that they might not even have not thought to hide. These websites force users’ browsers to share data such as the resolution of a computer screen, the font that a user uses, or tiny details about their operating system, which the websites then combine to create. a unique identity for a user’s device. Each website has a different fingerprint code, which determines the tiny data points they will pull from the device. This diversity makes it difficult to prevent digital fingerprints. Moreover, with digital fingerprints, these websites can even find out by which users have enabled the no-tracking methods in their browser, and end up doing just that.
“Fingerprints are designed to be hostile to users,” Patrick Jackson, chief technology officer at privacy software company Disconnect, told the Washington Post. “It even takes the fact that you don’t want to be tracked as a parameter to make your fingerprint more unique.” The Post further reported that many Google employees identified digital fingerprints as a threat to online autonomy; “Because the fingerprinting is neither transparent nor under the control of the user, it results in a follow-up which does not respect the choice of the user”, the engineers of Google wrote in May.
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With this unique identity, websites can track user movements on the Internet and, in turn, their online behavior, which they then use to create advertisements specifically targeted to user needs. The problem is, this intrusion is not that altruistic. It is an outright attempt by marketers to not only tap into a consumer base that matches their target demographic, but also to artificially create a need for their products. While this problem is not that new, the growing awareness among internet users of all the ways websites do it has led them to implement safeguards against such unwarranted intrusion. But with digital fingerprints, users still don’t know how they can protect themselves and their data. A direct repercussion, according to a 2016 studyis that advertisements don’t just provide consumers with what they want, they also change consumer behaviors and desires. An ad-based personalized digital marketing strategy has also led to the spread of fake news and creepy political falsehoods that have the power to change the fabric of democracy if left unchecked.
When The Washington Post contacted all the companies it identified, it took the fingerprints of users who visited their websites, many played dumb, saying they had no idea what They did. Only six in 30 admitted to using a fingerprint code on their website and agreed to remove it – four of the six websites were owned by the US government.
Fingerprinting has been a known practice for nearly a decade, the Washington Post reported, but it was more of a theoretical threat. Now websites, such as Airbnb and eBay, often use the method under the guise of wanting to protect user data – they can use the unique data that they have collected in users’ browsers to “keep you from sharing a file. password, identify scammers and block harmful bots. But when it comes to violating the privacy of users – even users who have explicitly indicated that they do not wish to be tracked – all the ways in which fingerprints can be used for good seem futile, as the initial methods are so shady.
“The data collected today can be used against us today, tomorrow, or even 10 years from now,” Jackson told the Washington Post. “Your browsing history, the apps you use and the data you provide to businesses can lead to voter manipulation, targeted behavior modification, and mass surveillance of our online and offline activities.”