As more and more attention is paid to the concept of online privacy and anonymity, there is some backlash from webmasters and site developers, especially those that profit the most from collecting and analyzing the information of their users. New techniques keep getting developed on both sides, and if you think you’re being sneaky online, you should think twice as you’re probably leaving a very identifiable footprint everywhere you go. And no, that “private mode” on your browser isn’t going to save you at all.
It’s very valuable for website owners to have the ability to distinguish between unique users, even without the users identifying themselves in any explicit way. If you’re shopping at an online retailer, they can benefit a lot from knowing who you are exactly every time you come back, even if you haven’t made an account. Tracking the history of what products you’ve viewed and purchased and cross-referencing it against the history of other users can be very useful.
But what would be even more useful is cross-referencing your browsing habits at one site with those at another. So for example, if an online retailer could know that you were just visiting a site for sports gear before coming to their site, they could potentially make use of that information by prioritizing products related to sports. How would a website know that though? That’s where your footprint comes in play. Every device on the Internet is unique in some way, and it’s only a matter of putting the right variables together to build an identifiable profile of you. It goes much, much deeper than just your IP address and browser version, and the bad news is, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting tracked in this way.
By taking many variables into account, a website can build a profile that’s pretty much guaranteed to be unique from one user to another. For example, think of the following: you’re using plugins like Java, Flash, Silverlight and others in your browser. A website can query which version of each of those plugins you have installed, and if you’re like most users out there, you probably have a pretty unique combination of those versions since you don’t keep those plugins updated all the time.
But what if you do? Well, you’re still out of luck. You probably have a bunch of unique fonts installed on your system by various applications. And guess what? Sites can check those as well. A website needs to know if you have certain fonts installed so it can render properly, and that’s another factor that can be used to identify you very uniquely and with almost perfect certainty, especially when combined with other details.
What Can I Do to Avoid It?
Your digital footprint is here to stay, so you should get used to that fact. It’s impossible to completely remove it, but you can still do a lot to minimize its impact on your browsing. Use private mode whenever possible, use a different browser for special activities, don’t create an account unless you need to and clear your cookies regularly. This may be a bit tedious in the long run, but it will give you some extra peace of mind knowing that sites will have a harder time tracking you down and exploiting their knowledge about you.
Make no mistake though, this is a game of cat and mouse that will ultimately be won by the cat. It’s impossible to keep avoiding these trackers forever, and it’s only going to get more difficult in the near future. So what’s truly important right now is to develop proper habits for browsing the Internet in ways that can not be used to compromise you.