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Have you ever wondered how your web browsers or mobile apps are able to show you advertisements that are specifically unique to you? These ads can show up on your Yahoo or Google search pages or on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You probably have seen ads on your personal devices based on searches or sites you’ve visited on other devices you own. This might be appealing and functional to some, while it might be off-putting to others. Your online activity is constantly monitored wherever you go in the digital world. The tracking technique that websites use to collect information about you is called browser fingerprinting (also called device fingerprinting or online fingerprinting).

Browser Fingerprinting – What is it exactly?

Most websites utilize scripts, which are sets of instructions that tell your browser what to do, that run silently in the background within your web browser. These scripts can identify a great deal of information about your device(s) and browser that, when stitched together, forms your unique online “fingerprint” that specifically traces back to you across the internet, even across different devices and different browsing sessions.

Is browser fingerprinting the same as tracking cookies?

While cookies and fingerprinting may seem to serve the same function, the methodologies and regulations between the two are different.

The differences
There are regulations in place for cookies, hence the reason you see websites notifying you and requesting your permission to use cookies on their websites. That is not the case for browser fingerprinting, which happens in the background without your knowledge or consent. This is because browser fingerprinting scripts are highly indistinguishable from other scripts embedded within a website.  Additionally, you can delete cookies from your web browsers permanently, but with browser fingerprinting, no such option exists.

How is browsing fingerprinting used and why?

What do companies do with the information they collect or buy?
For the most part, this data is used to advertise to you and to personalize your experience online. That might not seem like a serious issue, but consider how sensitive the data is that you may be entering in your online search history and how it could potentially be used nefariously. Here are a few examples:

Data buying/selling
The U.S. doesn’t have national laws on data protection. This permits data compiled from your online activity to be sold to data brokers. Data brokers can combine your online activity with your offline information (e.g. from public records) in order to develop a profile for you. These profiles can then be marketed and sold to advertisers and other companies such as health insurance firms.

Dynamic pricing
You may already be aware that travel and eCommerce sites can and do adjust prices actively based on various factors. Browser fingerprinting is a major contributing factor influencing these prices, most often for airline tickets, clothes, and other products.

How can you prevent or limit browser fingerprinting?

Browser fingerprinting can be extremely difficult to prevent or avoid, but there are a few tips to fight back against browser fingerprinting and to minimize the recognition value of your fingerprint.

Browse in incognito mode
Web browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox allow users to browse in incognito mode. Incognito mode doesn’t save cookies, site data, or your browsing history in your private browsing session. This helps to prevent browser fingerprinting by “generalizing” your online profile to commonly used standard data points, which decreases the probability of formulating a unique Fingerprint. However, the incognito mode does not make your browsing completely private. Websites will still be able to view your IP address.

Use browser or anti-malware plug-ins/extensions
Browser plug-ins such as AdBlock Plus, uBlock, and NoScript can prevent website scripts from running within your web browser. However, preventing certain scripts from functioning can lead to issues with browsing on certain websites. These issues can be circumvented by whitelisting websites that you absolutely trust. Anti-malware software such as ESET is also very effective in blocking  ads and preventing malicious spyware software or extensions from installing onto your web browser or computer

Use VPN connections or proxy servers
VPNs or proxy servers help you mask your IP address. However, it’s important to note that your IP address is not the only way to track your digital fingerprint. You’ll need to use VPNs or proxy servers in conjunction with other methods to effectively counter digital fingerprinting. Managed IT Services Houston has been devising ways to protect companies against browser fingerprints for decades.

Scott Young

Scott Young, is the president of PennComp LLC, an IT Support Houston company. Being a CPA, Six Sigma Master Blackbelt, Change Management Certified and Myers Briggs Qualified, Scott’s expertise is reflected in PennComp as a leading IT company for computer services and network integration. PennComp utilizes Six Sigma methodologies and practices in their service delivery and offers state-of-the-art monitoring and management tools to their clients.