Nobody wants random strangers to have access to their fingerprints. They’re so personal, you only share them with authorities or use them to log in to personal devices. But did you know digital fingerprints can identify you just the same? Or that data brokers and marketers all over the world already have your unique digital fingerprint?
Internet privacy is becoming more elusive and understanding digital fingerprinting is important if you want to stay private online. Yet, 44% of people don’t know what a digital fingerprint is. It’s quite worrying. I’m sure none of you knowingly consented to having your digital fingerprints taken and stored — I know I didn’t.
If you’re curious about digital fingerprinting, grab a cup of tea and brace yourself for some chilling facts. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about digital fingerprinting, how it works, and what you can do to prevent it. Let’s get started.
What Is Digital Fingerprinting?
Digital fingerprinting identifies internet users by their browser settings and device characteristics. It involves matching your online activities to a set of identity markers or “fingerprints”.
A complex fingerprinting algorithm captures textual, graphical, and auditory information about your device and browser. It gathers information about your typing patterns, mouse movements, and layout preferences.
It also takes the dialect you use when texting as a marker to create a profile of you, your preferences, and habits.
Digital fingerprinting builds a unique picture of you based on your personal data, letting websites recognize you when you visit. Instead of monitoring you through an account login, websites collect data you never thought was important. This includes information like your screen resolution or browser configuration.
Marketers use this data for targeted marketing campaigns. It’s quite valuable for them since it’s easier to sell when they know who they’re selling to. For advertisers, it’s a dream come true, but for online privacy advocates, it’s a dystopian nightmare.
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How Does Digital Fingerprinting Work?
Browsers have “scripts” running in the background. They use built-in APIs to collect information about your connection and browser settings. Browser scripts also gather information about your device and configurations. Scripts have legitimate purposes like enabling video and audio playback. This means if you disable them, you’ll lose these key functionalities.
Collectively, this information creates a unique digital fingerprint of you by organizing the data into a “hash”. A hash is a sequence of characters representing your unique configuration. It includes information about your browser extensions, cookies, plugins, and device specs.
Websites and advertising networks share this information, creating something called cross-site tracking. Every website you visit collects information and shares it with a network of third parties which greatly diminishes your anonymity. The authorities and even cybercriminals know this and also often try to get access to this information — charming, isn’t it?
Digital Fingerprinting, Browser Fingerprinting, & Device Fingerprinting
When you look online, you might find people using these terms interchangeably. It’s a point of confusion for a lot of people — so, let me clear this up for you:
- 🌐 Browser fingerprinting. This digital profile of you is based on your browser configurations and preferences. Essentially, it’s information about how your device interacts with your browser.
- 💻 Device fingerprinting. Your device hardware and software information make up your unique device fingerprint.
- 📷 Digital fingerprinting. Browser fingerprinting and device fingerprinting are both types of digital fingerprinting. It’s the umbrella term for your overall digital identity.
Digital fingerprinting collects huge amounts of data, including information about your:
- System fonts
- Screen resolution
- Operating systems
- Browser extensions
- Keyboard layout
- User agents
- CPU class
- Touch screen availability
- Graphics card
- Language settings
- Browser cookie hash
Is Digital Fingerprinting Legal?
Digital fingerprinting is legal, even in Europe, which is known for stringent data privacy laws. The information collected in digital fingerprinting is considered public, and seeing as the data isn’t necessarily personal on its own, collecting it is legal.
Europe requires collectors to obtain explicit consent before gathering data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Websites must warn you about which cookies and data they collect, and first get your consent before they begin tracking your personal details. However, exceptions these laws exist. For example, consent isn’t necessary for device fingerprinting if data is needed to customize the user interface or connect to a communications network.
Elsewhere in the world, laws are less rigid. Websites and companies have far more control over what they collect and how, as well as how they use this information.
The Terrible Cookieless Monster
I think we’ve all had enough of website cookies. It’s such a pervasive internet flaw having to accept, decline, or reconfigure cookie settings every time you visit a website. Despite being an unforgivable nuisance, cookies aren’t the main culprit in digital fingerprinting. A cookie hash is just a small part of your overall browser fingerprint. So, deleting cookies won’t mitigate digital fingerprinting. That’s why digital fingerprinting is called the “cookieless monster”.
What Is Cross-Browser Fingerprinting?
Cross-browser fingerprinting is a newer and stronger evolution of browser fingerprinting. It doesn’t just gather information from one browser — it uses information from multiple browsers. Extra information means the fingerprinting algorithm can identify you with even greater accuracy.
While this may be a win for computer science, it’s a huge blow to online privacy. What’s scary is most people don’t know how pervasive digital fingerprinting is. The laws around it are also quite murky, making it tough for people to control their online privacy. In many ways, we don’t have the infrastructure to ensure people wield digital fingerprinting in an ethical way — as a privacy advocate, I feel it would be better if it didn’t exist.
Who Uses Digital Fingerprinting?
You might be wondering who’s stockpiling your personal data and why. The bad news is, it’s more than one industry quietly gathering and wielding your data for selfish gains. Here’s a run-through of who’s interested in your digital fingerprint and what they do with it.
Banks and Governments
Digital fingerprinting was first created to prevent suspicious access to personal and financial accounts. Have you ever gotten a notification about a login attempt from an unknown device? That recognition system is only possible because of digital fingerprinting. From a security perspective, digital fingerprinting is pretty useful.
It recognizes if logins come from different devices and notifies the account owner as a security measure. This helps prevent credit card fraud and identity theft. So, no — it’s not all bad.
This highly accurate way of identifying people found its way into the digital advertising sphere. It was always going to happen, right? The aggressive world of online marketing was never going to pass on the chance to track your browsing and purchasing habits.
The more data they have, the easier it is to create marketing campaigns to manipulate your decision-making. According to Yahoo Finance, the digital marketing industry is set to reach $807 billion by 2026 — and much of that growth relies on your data.
Cybercriminals use digital fingerprints to launch attacks on victims. They collect fingerprint data with bots or buy them from the cybercrime market, often using them to commit online fraud and identity theft.
Data brokers collect information about internet users to create comprehensive digital fingerprints. They know about your age and gender, purchasing decisions, personal interests, and political leanings. With this information, organizations develop “psychographic profiles” of you. Third-party companies can then use these profiles to inform campaigns.
Your browser fingerprint reflects a lot about you — more than you might think. It’s certainly enough for companies to create successful brain-hacking campaigns to manipulate your thinking.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal shed light on how political campaigners use digital fingerprints in questionable ways. As a third-party data broker, Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook data to create psychographic profiles about internet users. They sold these profiles to political campaigners. Ultimately, it helped them develop targeted strategies to sway political opinions.
Many consider this a criminal use of people’s personal data. After all, shouldn’t politicians focus on how to better the world rather than how to manipulate you into supporting them?
The Dark Side of Digital Fingerprinting
As you’ve seen, organizations use digital fingerprinting to both protect and exploit you. While banks use it to prevent suspicious login attempts, marketers and politicians use it to manipulate public decision-making for selfish gains.
The worst part of digital fingerprinting is most people are unaware of it. It’s also extremely difficult to prevent or reverse. Some netizens are aware of the malpractices, but more are oblivious to how organizations prey on their data.
How to Find Your Digital Fingerprint
- Firefox – Control+Shift+K (Windows) or Command+Shift+K (macOS)
- Safari – Command+Option+C
- Chrome – Control+Shift+J (Windows) or Command+Shift+J (macOS)
- Edge – F12
A navigation bar should come up on the right side of your screen. Then type “navigator.userAgent” and press enter. You’ll see your device’s “user-agent” which is used to identify browser details.
For a more detailed digital fingerprint, you can visit AmIUnique.org. Simply click on View my browser fingerprint and scroll down to see information about your browser. It’ll also tell you if your fingerprint is unique. If it is, this means anyone who has it can easily identify you.
How to Protect Yourself From Digital Fingerprinting
Browser and device fingerprinting aren’t the easiest things to defend against — in fact, it’s quite difficult. Many people think deleting cookies tackles tracking but it’s not true. While effective strategies exist, employing them significantly diminishes your internet experience. If you’re willing to make the trade-off in the name of privacy, here’s what you can do.
- Right click on any webpage and select Inspect from the list of options
- To open the Command Menu on Windows and Linux, press Ctrl+Shift+P. For macOS, press Command+Shift+P.
Tor offers solid privacy by using IP cloaking, tunneling, and layers of encryption to prevent people from tracking you. It also makes your browser appear generic which means it’s difficult to spot you from the crowd. Since fingerprinting works by identifying uniqueness, being as generic as possible helps with privacy.
People often misconstrue Tor as the infamous dark web.You can use Tor to access the dark web, but it isn’t the dark web by itself. It’s a privacy-focused browser offering increased privacy and a gateway to the dark web. Journalists and activists who need to stay undetected for safety reasons often use Tor for sending information and publishing. Tor safeguards privacy quite well, but it’s much slower than a regular web browser.
DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Browser
If you want to enjoy enhanced privacy without using a slow browser, use DuckDuckGo’s privacy-focused browser. DuckDuckGo claims to prevent fingerprinting by blocking many scripts used to collect fingerprint data. If you use it alongside a VPN, you can also mask your IP address and geolocation from snoopers. While your IP address is only a small part of your overall digital fingerprint, it’s the piece of data linking everything back to you.
Anti-tracking Browser Extensions
You can find a plethora of anti-tracking browser extensions online. While some are more effective than others, it might be best to use multiple defenses against fingerprinting. Here’s a list of some anti-tracking extensions to consider:
Use Generic Settings
If you opt for generic or default settings, it reduces your uniqueness and hampers identification accuracy, especially for browser fingerprinting. This means, for instance, removing tailored search results and browsing recommendations. The obvious downside of this is you can’t enjoy customizing your browser with choice extensions and settings.
Use a VPN
VPNs mask your IP address and prevent it from being added to your fingerprint. CyberGhost VPN also encrypts your connection to stop online trackers from harvesting your personal information and browsing habits. This significantly reduces your digital footprint, though remember, it’s impossible to get rid of entirely.
A VPN can’t hide every detail of your device. So, you should use a VPN with other anti-fingerprinting strategies like generic settings and a privacy-focused browser, to keep digital fingerprinting at bay.
CyberGhost VPN’s strict No Logs policy means we never monitor your activity. Our tough encryption also prevents network providers from snooping on your browsing habits. Download CyberGhost VPN to enjoy greater internet privacy.
Keeping Personal Information Safe
Fingerprinting works by gathering data about your browser configurations, operating system, plugins, and apps. While it was first developed to help organizations keep track of suspicious activity, it’s now used to exploit you. Between marketers using it to create sophisticated mind-hacking campaigns, and hackers using it for identity theft, the positive aspects of digital fingerprinting disappear in a cloud of negatives.
We recommend using generic browser settings with privacy-focused extensions and a VPN to limit data collection. VPNs hide your IP address and mask your online activity, both of which are an integral part of your overall digital fingerprint.
CyberGhost offers military-grade VPN encryption to conceal your online identity, including your IP address and browsing habits. Install CyberGhost VPN to protect your privacy and reduce your digital footprint.
Digital fingerprinting allows companies to track large amounts of your data and build unique profiles. It enables companies to collect data on users’ interests, browsing habits, system configurations, and more. With this information, companies can serve you targeted ads. It makes you more vulnerable to tracking and marketing persuasion. Download CyberGhost VPN to enhance your digital privacy toolkit.
Browser fingerprinting is a type of digital fingerprinting gathering information about your browser configuration. This information is unique to you, making it easy for you to be identified among billions of internet users. Your IP address is one of many pieces of information in your fingerprint. Mask your IP address using a VPN.
It’s difficult to totally mitigate digital fingerprinting and enjoy a pleasant internet experience. Taking steps to decrease fingerprinting accuracy can result in less convenience and slower browsing. If you want to defend against digital fingerprinting, you can:
- Use the Tor Browser
- Use generic browser settings
- Use privacy extensions
- Buy a VPN
A VPN alone can’t protect you from digital fingerprinting. But using it alongside other prevention strategies makes a meaningful difference to fingerprinting accuracy. This is because your IP address and online activity are a major part of your overall fingerprint, so if you hide your these with a VPN, it decreases the accuracy of your fingerprint.