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How your Web browser rats you out online
Written by Daniel   
Monday, 17 May 2010 18:30

From ARS Technica

You're concerned about your online privacy, and you do all the right things to keep from being tracked around the Web: purge your cookies regularly, clean out Flash "supercookies," even switch to browsers like Browzar, which lets you "search and surf the web without leaving traces on your computer." Doesn't matter—your browser is giving you away.

Browsers can offer a window into a computer. The browser's "user-agent sting" is visible to websites, for instance. So are "HTTP ACCEPT" headers. And it's simple to infer whether cookies are being blocked. In browsers with Javascript running, it's easy for websites to discover screen resolution, a list of all browser plugins, and the user's timezone. Throw in Flash, and it's possible to grab a complete list of system fonts.

Taken together, these bits of data produce a unique "fingerprint" that works even in the absence of cookies or other traditional Web tracking tools. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, concerned about the issue, has just wrapped up its own study (PDF) on browser fingerprinting, and it finds that even the privacy conscious have made themselves simple to track.

Of the 470,161 browsers that participated in EFF's Panopticlick project, 83.6 percent had an "instantaneously unique fingerprint." Browsers with Flash or Java installed could be uniquely identified 94.2 percent of the time. When one considers that "privacy conscious users" were over-represented in Panopticlick, these are surprising numbers.


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