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July 24, 2014

Are You Being Watched Online? It's Harder Than Ever to Tell


It's a question that's been huge on the Internet ever since the Internet became huge: am I being watched online? We already know that in many cases the answer is yes, with things like cookies and other breeds of tracking software, and in some of these cases, we actually prefer to be watched, particularly if that being watched yields benefits like a more personalized experience online. But new methods of snooping, spotted by Belgium's KU Leuven University and Princeton University, have recently become noticed, and are harder to track than ever.

While cookies are a fairly normal phenomena these days, there's a new breed of cookie out that's nudging a little over toward the insidious side of things. Known as the evercookie, it works to circumvent the standard practice of clearing a browser cache to delete cookies. Evercookies actually leave little chunks behind in local storage, and when the browser cache is deleted, the evercookie reactivates from the bits in local storage. This leads to a practice known as cookie syncing—Google is said to refer to it as “cookie matching”--which allows trackers to actually share user identifiers across a wider spectrum.

A new technique, recently found by the researchers, is known as “canvas fingerprinting.” In canvas fingerprinting, the browser is instructed by code to draw a hidden, unique image that defines and identified a specific user. The image becomes sufficient to serve as an identifier—much in the same way a fingerprint or other biometric tool might—and generally can't be spotted or prevented by most commonly available tools. The sites then associate data with the image, which can in turn be used to present certain ads or other content relevant to the user. One tool in particular, AddThis—a social media sharing mechanism currently in use by some of the biggest websites, though several don't seem to know about its tracking capability, is a major figure in canvas fingerprinting, according to reports.

There's a lot of value in tracking, so much so that companies will be eager to bring out the latest in tracking tools and attempt to put said tools to work, regardless of what the users think about the use of such tools. With some users actually eager to be tracked—it can result in a better, more relevant online experience, with content appearing that's directly related to a user's interests and needs—it's not a surprise that companies would want the best tracking capability around. But some users don't want to be tracked, and should accordingly have the option to not be tracked. Making tracking features that discriminate, however, is a difficult process at best, and may be outright impossible. To make a tracking tool that can be easily deactivated by users who don't want to be tracked, yet provide the tracking that some users do want, may be a process that just plain can't be done. However, some reports suggest that such blocking is in progress, and may be here soon.

Only time will tell just how far this all goes, and while many don't want to be followed, some do, and that's going to make taking any kind of stand here difficult. What can be done when some don't want to be followed, yet some do, and all of these people are in the same place? There are possible solutions, of course, and seeing just which emerge will be a point well worth watching.




Edited by Adam Brandt


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