Virtual fingerprints can track computer users' movements

Published: Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 17:02 [IST]

Sydney, May 19 (ANI): There exists a virtual fingerprint on most computers that can monitor the online habits of individuals, found a US privacy group.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, most web browsers carry a unique signature that can help websites gather information about online activities.

While this data does not directly identify you as a person, it can be used to build a very detailed Internet profile.

"Several companies are already selling products that claim to use browser fingerprinting to help websites identify users and their online activities. This experiment is an important reality check, showing just how powerful these tracking mechanisms are," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted senior EFF technologist Peter Eckersley as saying.

Data privacy has emerged as one of the key public concerns this year with market leading companies like Google and Facebook coming under fire for making too much information about their subscribers publicly accessible.

While the spotlight has been on those companies pushing to reveal more personal data in online platforms for their own marketing purposes, most people assume their web browsing activities remain private.

However, the EFF said it had confirmed the existence of the virtual fingerprints by researching the activities of a number of volunteers who visited a dedicated website it developed.

To conduct the research, the website anonymously logged information that most websites would normally access when users visit, said the EFF.

After comparing a database collected from almost a million visitors, the EFF discovered that 84 per cent of the configuration combinations were unique and identifiable, and where browsers had Adobe Flash or Java plug-ins installed they were 94 per cent identifiable.

Although the fingerprints can change regularly, simple algorithms were able keep track of the virtual identity.

Eckersley said browser fingerprints are different to the information-gathering cookies activated when people visit many websites and could be used as a tracking mechanism against those who block cookies.

He said they may also prove much harder for investigators to trace because they leave no evidence.

"Browser fingerprinting is a powerful technique, and fingerprints must be considered alongside cookies and IP addresses when we discuss web privacy and user trackability," said Eckersley.(ANI)

 

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