Monday, March 06, 2017 by Isabelle Z.
If the dwindling level of privacy offered by internet use makes you more than a little uncomfortable, you might not want to hear about the latest tracking technique developed by a Pennsylvania professor of computer science. Yinzhi Cao of Lehigh University has come up with a way to make “fingerprinting” work across multiple browsers with near-complete accuracy.
Browser fingerprinting identifies a list of characteristics that are unique to your particular computer’s software and hardware that is then used to identify you. It entails everything from your screen resolution to the fonts you have installed on your system. Banks and retail sites use the technique to authenticate users, and it is also used to target advertising by keeping track of your every move online and delivering ads that match your interests and habits.
While this profile is 91 percent accurate, it has been very easy to work around it simply by switching to a different web browser – until now. Cao’s new method will work even if you regularly rotate between various browsers, and its incredible rate of success will make it very attractive to advertisers and others who are looking to learn every last detail of your life and routine. A test of 3,615 fingerprints and slightly more than 1,900 users found an accuracy score of 99.2 percent.
Cao has expressed concern about how this cross-browser tracking could be used to impinge on people’s privacy by using it to deliver customized ads. Cao has published the code online, which is a bit of a double-edged sword; while advertisers will be able to use it to violate people’s privacy, computer scientists will be able to look at it carefully and hopefully develop some type of defense against it.
Cao’s approach works by having browsers run through a series of 36 tasks that are related to a computer’s OS and hardware capabilities, like CPUs, writing scripts, and graphics cards. It also keeps track of plugins, extensions, the presence of ad blockers, and time zones. The features it looks at are generally the same across different browsers, such as the screen’s width-to-height ratio rather than the resolution, which can vary. The tasks can be run in less than a minute and work successfully on many of the world’s top browsers, including Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, and Microsoft Edge.
The only browser that seems to be immune to this method is Tor. As people grow increasingly concerned about privacy matters when it comes to the internet, a number of new privacy-oriented tools are emerging, like Mike Adams, the Health Ranger’s Good Gopher search engine. Private search engines like Good Gopher, DuckDuckGo and Startpage are appealing to those who are tired of Google – whose ironic mantra is “Don’t be evil” – spying on their every move online and then recording it for time immemorial, including keeping voice recordings of conversations people have had within “earshot” of Google devices.
Modern technology is improving our lives in many ways. It’s the reason you are able to read this article in the first place and learn about how to protect yourself. At the same time, however, technology poses unprecedented potential dangers that people need to be aware of, from the invasion of privacy while surfing the web and the possibility of a data breach while shopping or banking online to people using RFID readers to steal your data right off the credit cards and passports in your wallet as they sit a few feet away from you. Anyone who wants to enjoy the benefits of modern technology and the internet in particular needs to be aware of all that can go wrong and do their best to close any vulnerabilities, whether it’s by using private browsers and VPNs or keeping your bank cards in an RFID sleeve. Advertisers and hackers alike are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and it’s vital to stay one step ahead of them.