GULYÁS, Gábor György, Ph.D.

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Tracking users on the web - reaching your devices and beyond

2013-09-30 | Gabor

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What are cookies, and why do marketers need them?

In the last ten years online advertising has grown tremendously, especially personalized advertisements concerning user behavior, called behavioral advertising. According to the estimation of the Interactive Adtvertising Bureau just in the United States internet advertising revenues reached $36.6 billion in 2012. In parallel, a myriad of techniques emerged allowing to detect the identity of surfing webizens in order to profile their preferences and interests. The simplest and yet most widespread identification method uses web bugs and tracking cookies, when a tracker service places unnoticeable small detectors on several websites allowing him to store and read identifiers from the computers of the visitors. Application of cookies allows servers to deliver a page tailored to a particular user, or the page itself can contain some script which is aware of the data in the cookie and so is able to carry information from one visit to the website to the next.

Owing to the large scale deployment of web bugs, user consciousness has also risen: many users set their browsers to reject cookies or quickly extinguish them. Other trends like the expansion of smart phones phones, which are taking an increasing part of the Web usage, also caused problem for marketers, since smart phones do not use cookies.

Digital fingerprints – emergence of technology in tracking

These changes are forcing trackers to develop novel techniques, such as fingerprinting, i.e. when characteristic attributes are used for identification rather than storing identifiers on user-side. In the academic era, the Panopticlick project was the first in 2010 to show that by using Flash or Java plugins browsers can be precisely fingerprinted. Later in 2011, Hungarian researchers pointed out that plugins are not even necessary for tracking, as font list can be detected from the browser directly, and the list is browser-independent for both Windows and Mac OSes (you can test the underlying principles on your own computers).

The tracking market also went along a similar direction quite rapidly. In the beginning of 2012, one of the leading fingerprint-based trackers advertised itself for the European market with device fingerprinting, emphasizing that their method is compatible with local law making the use of tracking cookies difficult (as it doesn’t need cookies at all). Today, leading fingerprinting companies offer services that go even beyond device fingerprinting: they recognize and connect devices that are likely to belong the same person, such as smart phones, tablets and laptops.

A recent paper that appeared at the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy reveals more details on the penetration and functionality of these companies. One of the most interesting finding is a rather low utilization rate on top sites, namely 0.4% in the Alexa top 10,000. However, the authors still found thousands of less relevant sites utilizing fingerprinting techniques, from which most were categorized as malicious, or spam (though one could expect regular business sites to do so).

Regarding their functionality, they found that tracker services use Flash and JavaScript for font detection, plus use Flash for additional tasks, such as obtaining system information, multi-screen resolution, or even for circumventing proxy protection in order to reveal the real IP address of the visitor. Some trackers go even further, using custom DLLs to gather more information from the registry (being a bit spyware-like), while others encrypt client identifiers to put themselves into a central, unavoidable position.

Future of fingerprinting

While fingerprinting is not widely adopted yet, and serious development is missing for protective technologies, the cat-and-mouse game seems to have begun in the area: tracking companies will likely outrun protective technologies as they get to the current level of the state-of-the-art fingerprinting techniques. Researchers predict that in the near future a shift is expected from the tech-based fingerprinting to biometric fingerprinting, opening new challenges for the privacy-enhancing research community.

This post originally appeared in the Tresorit Blog.

Tags: fingerprint, tracking cookie, tracking, future of privacy, tresorit blog

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