If you’re doing anything online that you don’t want anyone to know about, you’re probably out of luck.
The Washington Post reports a number of websites, from mainstream news outlets to porn sites, are using a hidden code to run a check to find out who you are. Accessing or deploying browsing features like “private browsing” may make no difference at all. In fact, because you’ve turned on a feature like “do not track” may make you more likely to be tracked, security experts say.
Some of these programs that track you online don’t appear to be that intrusive at first glance. The programs extract mostly innocent-looking data about your computer, such as your screen resolution or the version of the operating system your device is running.
It’s called “fingerprinting,” with the web taking a photograph of your browsing habits. With this information, a program can know what sites you’ve accessed in the past and create profiles of your behavior. It’s one of the reasons that ads seem to follow you around on the internet.
The Post report says most of the sites it contacted said “fingerprinting” web users is now industry standard practice. But one analyst told the Post that “fingerprinting” is user-hostile, with the fact that web users who ask not to be tracked become even more valuable tracking commodities.
According to the Post, Google, Apple, and Mozilla have all agreed that “fingerprinting” is a growing threat to consumers.
It’s not that websites you’ve visited have your name, address, or any other personal information about you in a database. It’s all a matter of putting information into a pattern.
As internet users access a website, the site’s code begins asking your computer for things that aren’t part of the usual process of pulling up a page. Knowing what operating system you’re running, what fonts you have installed or what your address is on your internal network distinguishing characteristics.
If you have turned on “do not track” the site may take a special interest in you. Different websites use different data points to assemble your fingerprint, which is part of what makes it so hard to control.
Some websites say they use fingerprinting to protect their customers. They contend that fingerprinting lets them improve online security, such as fighting attempts to use stolen credit cards or passwords.