Browser Fingerprinting 101: Everything You Need To Know

How browser fingerprinting works and how you can protect yourself from being tracked in this way in the future.

Browser fingerprinting, also known as device fingerprinting, browser profiling, or web bug detection, has become an increasingly popular method of tracking users and their behaviour over the past few years. This method uses various features of the user’s operating system and browser to identify them uniquely without having to use IP addresses or cookies, which are easily hidden or deleted. This guide discusses exactly what browser fingerprinting is and how it works so you can protect yourself from being tracked in this way in the future.

Browser Fingerprinting 101: Everything You Need to Know

An introduction to browser fingerprinting

Browser fingerprinting is a relatively new technique that allows companies to track users online. Here’s how it works: when you visit a website, your browser sends information about your device and your settings to the website. This information can be used to create a unique fingerprint that can be used to identify you across the web. The dangers of this are clear – if someone could collect enough data about your browsing habits, they might be able to find out personal information such as where you live or what kind of device you have. That being said, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of getting tracked. One thing that may help reduce this risk is using an incognito window (a private browsing window) on your browser so that no information gets saved during this session – meaning companies won’t have any fingerprints on file for your particular session. Using incognito windows also means websites will not know if other windows with different cookies opened from the same computer are open or closed at any given time.

How it works

There are various pieces of information that are contained by a browser fingerprint. This information includes things like your operating system, screen resolution, and fonts installed on your computer. Based on this information, the website can create a fingerprint that is unique to your browser. This fingerprint can then be used to track you across the web, even if you clear your cookies or use a different browser. For example, advertisers might use fingerprinting to track you from site to site so they can serve up more relevant ads. In general, browser fingerprinting is the practice of using a browser’s unique characteristics to identify it. These characteristics can include things like the version of the browser, what plugins are installed, and even the user’s time zone. That information can be combined with other data points (e.g., location) to create a fingerprint that identifies users across devices. It’s worth noting that this type of fingerprint is not always an accurate representation because some browsers will have been recently updated or may have disabled certain plug-ins, but it does give us a pretty good indication as to who you are. 

The future of user tracking on the web

Browser fingerprinting has become the go-to method for user tracking because it’s more reliable than cookies and harder for users to opt-out of. There are two major ways that browsers can be fingerprinted. The first way is by assigning unique identifiers to web browsers based on the browser’s configuration, settings, plugins, installed fonts, etc., which can then be read by a website whenever it loads content from that site – no matter what your browser settings are. The second way relies on hardware rather than software configuration. Browsers store information about every pixel in every image they load in order to display them on your screen properly – this includes identifying details like timezone, pixel ratio, font size etc. In addition, some technologies (like WebGL) collect metadata about the computer running them. All of these pieces of data make up the total fingerprint of your browser – a unique identifier for each machine. When you visit a website with both methods of fingerprinting turned on, the server detects its own machine ID, as well as some other pieces of data to identify you uniquely as well. If both work together they form an almost perfect fingerprint match (more accurate than cookies).

What you can do right now to protect yourself

There are a couple of ways you can protect yourself from this form of data collection:

  • Use a private browsing window. This will prevent your browser from storing cookies and your browsing history. 
  • Use a VPN. This will encrypt your traffic and make it more difficult for third-parties to track you. 
  • Use a privacy-focused browser. Mozilla Firefox and Tor Browser are two good options. 
  • Use anti-tracking extensions. uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger are two popular choices. 
  • Don’t click on links in emails or text messages from people you don’t know. These could be phishing attempts designed to fingerprint your browser. 
  • Keep your browser and operating system up to date with the latest security patches.
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