How Digital Fingerprinting Tracks, Identifies & Affects Us

At one time, the internet was seen as a place where users could remain anonymous: they could scroll from the privacy of their screen. Today, we know that’s no longer the case.

In an attempt to sell more products, and create a personalized digital experience, tech firms, companies and advertisers track and analyze each user across the digital landscape.

Privacy is still important to users: 90% of individuals in a recent global survey said online privacy was important to them. Many users install VPN software and ad blockers to ward off cookies and mask their IP address. However, it’s impossible to ward off and most of us accept that it’s a trade-off for the personalization and convenience we experience online.

This brings us to digital fingerprinting, the technique that identifies and tracks your devices and browsers based on your individual characteristics and settings. It is a technical feat and one of the triumphs of modern computer science — it’s also a hot topic as internet privacy becomes nearly impossible in an evolving and complex online environment.

Here is what you need to know about digital fingerprints, what they’re commonly used for, and how to protect yourself.

Digital fingerprinting collects and analyzes various data points from your device or browser. Some of the data most commonly collected include:

  • Device information, such as operating system, device make and model, and screen resolution.
  • Browser type and version, like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.
  • IP addresses can contribute to the fingerprint in combination with other data points.
  • Browser settings, including time zone, language, and whether cookies are enabled.
  • Installed fonts and plugins
  • Canvas fingerprinting, which leverages the way your device renders graphics to contribute to the fingerprint.
  • WebGL and hardware information about your device’s graphic card and drivers.
  • Supercookies, which are more persistent than regular cookies and harder to delete. They store information that includes browsing history and behavior.
  • Do Not Track settings, ironically, can be used as a data point.

The goal of digital fingerprinting is to (such as your name, home address, etc.) but instead to identify your device or browser based on its unique attributes. However, there are times when combining and analyzing these attributes can indirectly lead to user identification. This raises privacy concerns for many individuals and potential abuse from bad actors.

 Uses of digital fingerprints

Tech platforms, retail companies, advertisers and more leverage digital fingerprints for a broad range of applications. Some of the most common uses are:

Online advertising

Most of the time, digital fingerprinting comes down to advertising and sales. Advertisers use fingerprints to across multiple websites. They then use the analysis to build user profiles that detail their interests and habits, enabling them to deliver highly targeted ads.

Personalization of services

This is one of the more popular and less controversial uses of fingerprinting: 83% of consumers in a recent survey said they’re willing to share data with brands so they can create a personalized experience.

Security and fraud detection

Although sales are the primary driver of digital fingerprinting, they can also be used for security. By comparing a user’s fingerprint with a saved profile, security professionals and systems can flag suspicious behavior, which could indicate fraudulent activity or unauthorized access.

Digital rights management

Law enforcement and forensics

Law enforcement and digital forensics use digital fingerprints to trace the source of illegal activities, understand a suspect’s online behavior, or verify the authenticity of digital evidence.

How can I protect my digital fingerprint?

While there are ways to protect your privacy online, eliminating all unique identifiers professionals can use to create a digital fingerprint is challenging. Depending on how you use the internet, it might even be impossible.

The first step you can take is to determine how you and your devices currently appear online. Websites like Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Cover Your Tracks or AmIUnique.com  determine how unique your device is.

Basic security like a VPN and blocking cookies is a good initial step in making your digital fingerprint harder to track, but they’re not enough on their own. An ad blocker can also stop some data collection but will not stop all tracking.

Blocking JavaScript will restrict a lot of data points that can be collected. This is the most effective way to stop all tracking, but can keep certain websites from working, like complex web tools and services. Notably, YouTube and other common sites do not work without some JavaScript.

In addition, specific browsers can limit accessible data for fingerprinting. Firefox blocks some, as well as browsers focusing on privacy like DuckDuckGo, Brave, Tor, and Mullvad. These browsers block data or submit generic information to make digital fingerprinting more challenging, though, none of these browsers are perfect.

While you may be able to lower the amount of collected information, using any complex web service, like social networks or online shopping, requires sharing some tracked data.

Understanding digital fingerprints in today’s digital world

Digital fingerprinting can serve as vital technology in today’s digital world. Its ability to generate unique identifiers from devices and browsers is powerful and leads to improved user experiences and enhanced security. It plays an integral role in areas ranging from security and to personalized services and targeted advertising.

It’s also crucial to acknowledge its potential for misuse and how hard it is to escape. The future of digital fingerprinting will inevitably shape ongoing discussions around data privacy and legislation. Businesses, regulators, and users must balance leveraging digital fingerprints and safeguarding privacy. It will ultimately take a deeper understanding of the technology, and an emphasis on transparency, to navigate this complex landscape.

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Kayly Lange
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Kayly Lange

Kayly Lange is a freelance writer. As a tech and SaaS specialist, she enjoys helping companies achieve greater reach and success through informative articles. When she’s not writing, she enjoys being out in nature, cooking, and reading a wide range of novels. You can connect with Kayly on LinkedIn.