The literal meaning of a fingerprint is the impression that your fingertip leaves when you touch something. Curls and ridges that are clearly visible under a magnifying glass. As far as we know, each person’s fingerprint is unique. This means that if your fingerprints match those at the crime scene, you better explain why.
So when we talk about browser fingerprinting, you probably already got the general idea right. As you might be thinking, this is a way to determine who has visited a site based on the unique characteristics of their browsers. What are these aspects? Glad you asked!
What are these fingerprints?
What are these fingerprints anyway?
Let’s say you have a freshly installed copy of Windows and have just installed the web browser of your choice.
When you visit a website, that website may ask your browser for any information about your computer. On this new machine, it will know things like the hardware the computer is using, what the screen resolution is, and the version of Windows you are using.
As you use your computer, visit websites and install plugins, your computer and browser become more and more unique. This means that the specific browser and computer used to visit this site can be compared later.
Let’s say you enable some kind of privacy protection like VPN Although your ISP and the remote site you are connecting to do not know who you are or where you are from, your browser fingerprint can tell them something.
If two sites compare fingerprints, you may be linked to both. If you visit one of them without any privacy protection, you will confirm your activity on the Internet, ostensibly “anonymously”.
How to check your browser fingerprint
How to test your browser fingerprint
You can easily check if your browser leaves a unique fingerprint. There are several online tools that provide this information for you to view. I recommend Panopticlick 3.0 from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
All you have to do is click CHECK ME, and in a few seconds you will see if your browser is unique enough to pose a privacy risk. Come on, try it now.
Leave no fingerprints
Never leave a footprint behind
Presumably most of you reading this have failed the tracking test. So what can you do to anonymize your browser?
The answer to this question varies in degree. There is no 100% reliable way to anonymize your browsing, but you can make it complex enough that someone who wants to track your browsing doesn’t have the resources or motivation to do so.
Let’s take a look at some of the practical steps you can take to become more anonymous online.
Private Browsing Modes
Popular browsers like Chrome or Firefox have private browsing modes that disable many of the features used for tracking and fingerprinting.
When you are in private browsing mode, your computer does not store cookies or site data. It doesn’t hide many things from the site you visit, but it prevents the accumulation of some unique data that can be used to identify you.
Of course, you cannot use the entire Internet in this mode. Therefore, switch to the private tab when visiting sites that you don’t need as part of your shared credentials.
Break the extension habit
Kick rollover habit
Every change you make to your browser helps distinguish it from other users on the web. It can be tempting to really customize your experience, and there are many great extensions for browsers like Chrome.
Unfortunately, if you care about being tracked and identified at all, you need to refrain from using extensions. Well, except for one thing. EFF’s Privacy Badger extension actually blocks invisible tracking technologies, and you can get it for Firefox and Opera.
Use popular browsers
Use popular browsers
Trying something out of the box is cool, but not the best option if you care about browser privacy. It is best to use very popular browsers. So avoid niche and heavily modified browsers.
There are many ways to express your personality, but this is one area where this is actually a bad idea.
Boss mode: use a virtual machine, VPN and privacy operating system
Boss Mode: Use Virtual Machine, VPN, and Privacy Operating System
If you want a more sophisticated solution for tracking and identifying your Internet browsing habits, you can do something a little “core” in terms of privacy. By combining several technologies, you can drastically reduce the likelihood of being recognized by the sites you visit.
The recipe looks like this:
- Use a virtual machine that hides your true hardware specifications.
- Run a privacy-focused operating system on the virtual machines. Tails is a good choice.
- Use the standard Tor browser already included with Tails
- Use a VPN that does not store activity logs so that your ISP does not have data to match against the sites you visit.
Together, these measures make it difficult to uniquely identify your ISP or the site you are visiting.
Of course, none of this matters as long as you voluntarily submit your identity. Logging into Facebook or Twitter leaves no doubt about who you are. This means that you also need to be aware of the information you openly provide and whether you want to do so or not.