I’m Unique…Like Everyone Else

If anything, delving into online data tracking has made it readily apparent just how much of our information is, well, readily apparent. Just about every application you could conceive of using is tracking you to some extent. Don’t believe me? Sounds far-fetched? Well, there are plenty of sites you can explore that will break down for you how different forms of online data tracking work.

This week, were provided a list of different sites in the class blog post that let you view how your own online activity is being tracked. Now, I know this post also said not to use sources shared in the class post for any additional blog posts. But, in this case, only brief summary of these sites were provided. Also, most people will not have the opportunity to explore every site more thoroughly. So, given those circumstances, it seems it would be helpful to have posts exploring the sites in more detail.

Anyway, justification for this post provided, let me get into what “Am I Unique?” does!

The site “Am I Unique?” allows users to discover how identifiable their own “device/browser fingerprint” is online as well as explore how comparable their fingerprint is to other users around the globe. Device/browser fingerprinting is “the systematic collection of information about a remote device, for identification purposes.” This kind of tracking seems like an inherent capability on most devices/browsers. The goal of this project seems to be to make people more aware of “cookieless monsters”. See, device/browser fingerprints are not a kind of tracking cookie or composed of many tracking cookies. Instead, it seems like a device/browser fingerprint is generated by you just connecting to a server. According to “Browser Fingerprinting: What Is It and What Should You Do About It?” by PixelPrivacy, “when you connect to the internet on your laptop or smartphone, your device will hand over a bunch of specific data to the receiving server about the websites you visit.” From your fingerprint, any interested party can find out all about your browser usage, operating systems, plugins, timezone, languages, screen resolution, as well as any other of your active settings. Essentially, your fingerprint will reveal what your computer looks like to someone else.

While this seems highly concerning to me, “Am I Unique?” points out that this fingerprint is a “double-edge sword”. Fingerprints can be used to fight fraud and hijacking and confirm that a user is a legitimate one. But, they can also be used to create a profile of you for advertisers as well as exploit you in other ways through targeted attacks. PixelPrivacy states, “Websites bulk-collect a large set of data of visitors in order to later use it to match against browser fingerprints of known users.” Even if your fingerprint isn’t used right away, it can be stored in a system for future targeting by a given entity.

And, this is all legal practice in the US right now.

More, this is not even the worst of it. There’s canvas fingerprinting as well (which deals with HTML5 coding–so I didn’t get too into it because I’m not familiar enough with the terminology). Essentially, your fingerprint is written into this code and freely accessible if you know where to look. The thing you want to look for is called the “canvas element”. I recommend checking out the wiki article if you want to know more about the mechanics of how this system works.

Anyway, “Am I Unique?” allows users to see for themselves how easy it is for their fingerprint to be accessed. Mainly, the site shows user what kind of data points are generated by their fingerprints.

For example, this is the overview of my fingerprint:

2019-02-08 (2)

The site breaks down how much of the sites you use are “unique” and kind of shows you how a site would collect this kind of info so they can target specific groups of people (like Windows 10 users). The site also provides some charts so you can see how specific parts of your user profile further break down.

2019-02-08 (3)

In this chart, you can see the browser break down of all the people who have used “Am I Unique?” around the world. It’s a little disconcerting and by a little, I mean a lot. You can also see the languages people search in:

2019-02-08 (4)

I like this one because it looks like a spider

It’s honestly wild just how much information about you can be extrapolated in like 30 seconds if that. I mean, this is just a broad overview of all the information that could so easily be accessed for any reason by anyone interested.

What’s very concerning about this kind of fingerprinting is that there is really nothing that can be done to totally eliminate it. If you want to use the Internet, you’re going to have to accept some minimum invasion of privacy. For most of us, it’s a massive invasion though. We don’t know to manage the online tracking of our data. More, we don’t even know what and how much is being tracked. For those concerned about their device/browser fingerprint, PixelPrivacy recommends: 1) Using private browsing methods (like going incognito) 2) Using plugins that block ads like AdBlock Plus, Disconnect, etc. 3) Disabling JavaScript & Flash 4) Installing Anti-Malwate Software 5) Using the TOR browser (if you’re serious) and 6) Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), of course. Now, all of these things have their downsides and can severely impact your Internet browsing experience (i.e cause slower loading times, interrupt the functioning of sites, etc.). It is important to weigh one’s concerns against the risks before making any decisions in this area.

Of course, what is most important is that we continue to try and educate ourselves on important online issues like data tracking and online privacy as well as continue to develop our digital literacy practices. Sites like “Am I Unique?” provide a lens through which we can better understand and conceptualize important issues like this that are, unfortunately and nefariously, often hidden from view. I highly recommend checking out this site in order to learn more about the importance of one’s browser fingerprint and about what this fingerprint can be used for.

***Edit: I give this tool a in regards to how much light it sheds on the darkness of the web. It seems like it could be useful for providing clarity but, unfortunately, a lot of the languages used and a lot of the knowledge necessary to interpret this information is fairl inaccessible to a lot of users.

~Till next time~

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4 Comments

  1. Wow Kelli,
    This is a quite impressive here! Nice thoroughly detailed and engaging post. Your sample visuals (screenshots) and hyperlinks really made this possible. It is what makes your posts so enjoyable to read.I like how you dove into, party, into this other side of darkness of the internet. It is scary to even think that almost every website of online software we use it is in some way tracking our every action online. And perhaps what is scarier is the fact that our collected data could be possibly used in ways that violate our overall privacy. You post here is a great reminder, and eye opener, of what is happening online these days.

    Thank for sharing!
    Karel (or NavyBluGuy)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hah! This is thorough enough to negate our request about reviewing things mentioned in class. But we do hope in future ones you cast the net wide.

    I’ve not seen to many results for this test that are less unique. And true, this is really much that cannot be blocked, some of the data is what is built into internet protocol. For example, everytime you visit the netnarr web site, the apache web server registers a log identifying a time, page viewed, and the IP address of most likely your wireless router (which in itself gives some geographic sense of where you are, but not a physical location, but like the town level). it’s not quite something to know about you per se. And the are positives to be said for knowing info about your audience. What is spying and surveillance vs metrics of usage?

    The harder question is, in theory this might be used for foul purposes. but is it?

    And how would one ever know? What does it take to be able to use this info?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey,

      Thank you for your insight!

      What’s becoming the most pressing issue, to me, about online surveillance is regulation. A lot of data collection, like metric usage, is not inherently nefarious and often has a practical, understandable use. Many of us may agree voluntarily to its collection. But, there is an unfortunately growing kind of data collection that is thoroughly invasive and would not be consented to if it were known.

      I think transparency and regulation are two key things we should advocate for in regards to this issue. I’m just not sure, myself, where lines should be drawn for either.

      Like

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