Websites want to identify the users that visit. One of the ways they do that is via browser fingerprinting.
Browser fingerprinting techniques are quite accurate in identifying an internet user. They are also difficult to block or evade. A 2021 research paper reports that ten percent of the top-ranked websites use browser fingerprinting techniques to identify and track internet users.
In this guide, we will explore the concept of browser fingerprinting, how it works, and why it is so widespread. We shall also discuss ways to ensure your online privacy despite this prevalent and effective internet tracking method.
Let’s get started by knowing what browser fingerprinting is.
What Is Browser Fingerprinting
Browser fingerprinting is a term that describes methods or internet tracking techniques used to obtain information about an internet user from their web browser.
You are well aware of the fact that everything you lay your hands on has your fingerprint on it. Similarly, every website you visit can get your browser fingerprint if they want to, and there is little you can do to stop that.
Web browser fingerprinting techniques have been in existence since the late 1990s. They were basic and primarily used to differentiate and measure real human web traffic from various forms of click fraud.
In the decade that followed, the technique was greatly improved. Researchers showed how they could obtain a hardware fingerprint of a remote device via timestamps on data requests made by the device. The Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a website in 2010 that enabled users to check their browser fingerprints.
In 2012, researchers discovered canvas fingerprinting. This is a kind of browser fingerprinting that utilizes the HTML5 canvas element of web pages. This element is an integral part of web pages, so it is quite difficult to block this form of fingerprinting. This made the browser fingerprinting technique quite popular.
In 2021, researchers announced a set of newer techniques they had discovered. They found these techniques are used in concert with the known fingerprinting techniques to track users effectively. Browser fingerprinting seems unstoppable.
One of the things fueling the rapid development and widespread use of browser fingerprinting is the ease of its deployment and use. It requires fewer resources to deploy on websites. It also makes use of existing features of web pages and the internet. All browser fingerprinting techniques use a core part of web pages to generate a unique identifier.
What Kind of Information Is Contained in a Browser Fingerprint?
A browser fingerprint is derived from specific characteristics of the user’s browser and device. Some of these characteristics include the following:
- the device model,
- its operating system,
- its browser version,
- the time zone,
- preferred language settings of the user,
- the plug-ins installed,
- screen resolution,
- audio and video capabilities,
- the fonts installed on the device.
Why Websites use Browser Fingerprinting
To Detect and Stop Fraud and Identity Theft
Banks use browser fingerprinting to detect and stop fraud. Bank security flags a customer account when they discover login attempts from multiple devices or different locations. They do it within seconds by analyzing the customer’s browser fingerprint.
Sometimes, malicious agents might try to hack a legitimate user account on a website to make a purchase or commit crimes. Websites can detect such activity and prevent it by putting up additional security with browser fingerprinting.
To Prevent Botnets and DDoS Attacks
Botnets are large groups of robot computers linked by malware, and they are used to conduct large-scale cybercrimes such as crashing websites or web servers. They flood the servers with data requests till they can’t handle them. This kind of attack on web servers is called a DDoS attack. (DDoS means Distributed Denial of Service.)
When a website is under a DDoS attack, regular users are unable to access it. To prevent these attacks, websites use browser fingerprinting techniques to identify the characteristics of botnets and block their access to the website.
To Serve Users Personalized Content
Accenture reports that 91 percent of customers are more likely to shop at stores that provide relevant recommendations. To remain on top of their game, e-commerce brands and content providers such as Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify use browser fingerprinting techniques.
Tracking site visitors allows content providers and e-commerce sites to serve them the content they want. Every time a user visits, they collect data to personalize the user’s experience. The information gathered must be linked to the identity of each person who visits. Browser fingerprinting techniques are efficient methods to achieve this, and they also seem less intrusive than the cookie tracking system.
To Enable Targeted Advertising and Dynamic Pricing
Advertisers reach more people via online advertising; however, they cannot cover the whole volume of internet users at once. The availability of precise web-tracking methods like browser fingerprinting enables them to target specific audiences and potentially increase their ROIs.
Browser fingerprinting allows advertisers access to specific information like your location and browsing history. With this information, they display ads for things you would want to buy. E-commerce websites use your location to determine the prices they sell to you.
When they detect you are in an affluent location, their system automatically raises prices on almost everything you can buy online: airline tickets, clothing, and other products, apps with subscription services, and more.
The more data advertisers get, the more accurate the ads they display are. Because you are being prompted to spend more, they can rest assured of higher revenue.
How Does Browser Fingerprinting Work?
Biologists say no two human beings have the same fingerprints. Identical twins are not exceptions. All machine or device fingerprinting techniques are based on this premise. However, the equivalent of a fingerprint for digital devices is not as easy to define as it is for human beings.
A digital fingerprint has to be defined by various characteristics to make it unique and usable for its aims. These characteristics must also be inherent to the digital device. It can be quite difficult to obtain a unique digital fingerprint considering the uniformity in design and deployment of hardware and software of modern digital devices.
Nonetheless, slight variations and advances in technology have made it possible to create a digital fingerprint.
Browser fingerprinting is executed by a script working in the background without the consent and knowledge of the user. The script is embedded in the webpage, and it either runs by itself or requires a kind of interaction before it is executed.
When the script code is executed, data is collected and stored in a hash code. The hash is generated by a hashing function. The hash function reduces text, images, or audio to standardized data values without losing the uniqueness of starting material. Thus, browser fingerprints are a unique combination of data values. These fingerprints are stored in large databases by the websites.
To use browser fingerprinting successfully as an identifying and tracking tool, the databases of fingerprints are crucial. Every time a user visits the website, a hash is generated. This unique code is compared with existing ones in the database. A regular user is identified when a match is obtained. There won’t be a match for first-time users; thus, their fingerprints will be added to the database.
There are several open-source browser fingerprinting libraries, such as FingerprintJS, ImprintJS, and ClientJS. FingerprintJS is the most updated and supersedes both ImprintJS and ClientJS to a large extent.
How Many Browser Fingerprinting Techniques Are There?
A lot of data can be mined from a web browser. Different browser fingerprinting techniques are created based on each, or a group of these data. Below, we will discuss four of these methods.
These fingerprinting techniques are often used together. More than two techniques are used at the same time to generate an accurate fingerprint for each user. Each technique will collect different data and thus enable the website to determine higher levels of uniqueness required to accurately identify a user.
HTML5 has a canvas API that web designers use to draw graphics on web pages. There are variations in how this canvas element is rendered on different web browsers and devices. Canvas fingerprinting exploits these differences to create a unique digital fingerprint for the user of the web browser and device.
Canvas fingerprinting is the most popular form of browser fingerprinting. It was reported that more than 5% of the websites in existence today use this technique to track users. This is because the fingerprinting technique is easy to deploy and difficult to block. Blocking it may make the web page inaccessible.
WebGL fingerprinting is also called rendering fingerprinting because it exploits the differences that occur in the rendering of certain web elements on different browsers and devices.
This technique is similar to canvas fingerprinting as it forces web browsers to render images and text elements. When the images are rendered by the browser, it collects data about the device’s graphics drivers and screen resolution to create a fingerprint.
This technique is similar to canvas and WebGL fingerprinting because it creates the fingerprint from the data it gets when the web browser is forced to render certain web elements. However, audio fingerprinting techniques require your browser to play sound and infer information about the device when the sound is played.
The sound played is usually low frequency and may not require the user’s permission. The way your computer processes the audio signal is measured to create a fingerprint. This fingerprint is based on information about your device’s audio drivers, sound hardware, and software.
Media Device Fingerprinting
This fingerprinting technique uses information from all the media devices connected to your device to create a unique identifier for you. Internal media components like audio cards, video cards, and linked devices like headphones are part of the information gathered.
Media fingerprinting is seldom used because it requires the user to grant permission to access their device’s microphone or camera. It is used only when the web service requires a compulsory use of the user’s microphone or webcam.
How do you Enhance Your Online Privacy?
Trying to stop browser fingerprinting can feel like trying to trap air. Despite this, you can ensure your privacy online if you have access to the right tools and techniques.
You can delete cookies because they are stored on your device. You can also choose to reject them or use browser extensions that block them when you surf the internet. All of these are not possible with browser fingerprinting. First, it is quite invisible, and you are not always aware of its presence. Second, browser fingerprints are not stored on your device. Also, you can’t access where they are stored to delete yours.
Stopping browser fingerprinting requires some extreme methods which might affect your browsing experience. The web tracking method utilizes core parts of the internet experience. Nonetheless, if you’re a privacy-minded person, here are a few ways you can enhance your privacy online.
Use Anti-Detect Browsers
Researchers have found that many anti-fingerprinting techniques are not as useful as we think they are. Your best bet remains to use browsers that ensure privacy and limit tracking.
Anti-detect browsers like Incogniton are built with capabilities to mitigate most forms of internet tracking systems. With Incogniton, you can operate different browsing profiles with unique browser fingerprints. Each of these browser fingerprints is unique and will remain the same every time you use the profile. What happens is that browser fingerprinting websites think you are someone else for each profile.
So far, we have explored the concept of browser fingerprinting, why it is used, and how you can enhance your online privacy despite the perpetuity of browser fingerprinting techniques.
Browsing fingerprinting techniques have continued to evolve. As mentioned earlier, researchers have uncovered newer techniques that are now used with older ones to identify and track users. This trend is expected to continue as our use of the internet gets more sophisticated.
Is Browser Fingerprinting Legal?
Yes, it is legal in many areas of the world. Though there are regulations specific to web tracking systems, there hasn’t been one that addresses browser fingerprinting.
The EU’s ePrivacy regulation mentions device fingerprinting explicitly. However, this law is yet to be adopted. On the other hand, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has regulations that cover cookie-based tracking and other tracking systems. These systems are legal if the rules guiding their usage are followed. The regulation stipulates that the consent of the user must be sought before they are deployed.
Can You Avoid Browser Fingerprinting?
It is almost impossible to avoid browser fingerprinting. This is because the techniques are based on integral parts of web pages. For example, canvas fingerprinting uses HTML5 canvas to generate data to create a fingerprint.
Disabling the canvas element makes it impossible to draw graphics on the web page. This will result in less interactive websites and poor user experiences.
What Is Cross-Browser Fingerprinting?
Cross-Browser Fingerprinting occurs when a unique fingerprint can be generated regardless of the browser used. This kind of fingerprinting technique utilizes just hardware properties to create a browser fingerprint.
Researchers have demonstrated that an accurate fingerprint can be generated with data on the type of operating system and hardware level features of a device.
How Similar Is Cookie Tracking to Browser Fingerprinting?
Both are web tracking systems with great differences in how they operate. Browser fingerprinting is more sophisticated as it operates without the user’s consent or knowledge. Cookies are stored on the user’s device, while browser fingerprints are stored independent of the user’s device. Thus, they cannot be deleted by the user like cookies.
How Can I Check My Browser Fingerprint?
Some websites are dedicated to helping you check how unique your browser fingerprint is. They will offer a breakdown of the kind of data contained in your fingerprint alongside a score of browser fingerprint’s uniqueness.
Can Incognito Mode or Private Browsing Prevent Browser Fingerprinting?
Ideally, incognito mode and private browsing of popular browsers should help maintain a high level of privacy. However, they fall short when it comes to browser fingerprinting. Using these features makes the browser fingerprint more unique to the user.
Can You Prevent Browser Fingerprinting by Using Multiple Browsers?
Yes. Different browsers on the same device should have different fingerprints. In scenarios when both browsers are poorly protected against fingerprinting, the two fingerprints could be identified as originating from the same device. Websites with cross-browser fingerprinting capabilities can achieve that.
Can VPN Stop Browser Fingerprinting?
No. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and it is a common privacy tool. It cannot prevent browser fingerprinting because it only hides your IP address and encrypts your internet traffic. IP addresses are important parts of your fingerprint. Browser fingerprints are generated with data from your web browser and device. VPNs have no influence whatsoever on those things.