Hey there! Browser fingerprinting has become a really sneaky way for websites and advertisers to identify and track you across the internet. I know how unsettling it feels to lose control of your privacy online, so I put this comprehensive guide together to shed light on what browser fingerprinting is, how it works, and most importantly – the steps you can take to protect your privacy.
As an expert in web scraping and proxies, I‘ve seen first-hand how browser fingerprinting has evolved to become a powerful tracking technique that most people underestimate. My goal is to give you the information you need to minimize fingerprinting and take back control of your online privacy. Let‘s get started!
What Exactly is Browser Fingerprinting?
Simply put, browser fingerprinting is the practice of websites and third party companies collecting configuration details about your device to form a unique fingerprint to identify you.
This isn‘t just limited to your browser – the fingerprint can include factors like your:
- Screen resolution
- Operating system
- Browser type and version
- System fonts
- Installed plugins like Flash or Java
- IP address
Research indicates there are at least hundreds of attributes accessible for fingerprinting. When combined, they produce an astonishingly distinctive fingerprint.
In a data set of over 2.1 million fingerprints, researchers found that:
- 83% included unique screen sizes
- 86% had unique browser plugin combinations
- 18% had unique user agent strings describing their browser, OS and device
Considering most people have distinct device setups and preferences, it‘s very unlikely someone else will share your exact fingerprint.
And that‘s what makes this technique so powerful. Sites and trackers can use your browser‘s fingerprint – not an easily deleted cookie – to identify and track you across the web.
Now that we understand what a browser fingerprint is, let‘s look at how the tracking process actually works when you visit websites.
How Websites Generate and Collect Your Fingerprint
The basic process of fingerprinting users is surprisingly straightforward from a technical standpoint. Here‘s what‘s happening behind the scenes:
Fingerprinting code runs on page load – When you visit a website using browser fingerprinting, code will execute in your browser as the page loads to start collecting data. This often happens through third party trackers embedded on the site.
Your configuration is analyzed – The fingerprinting script scans your browser and device to gather attributes like screen size, browser version, fonts, etc. This happens locally on your device.
Data gets sent back to servers – Once the script has built a fingerprint profile, it transmits that data back to the company‘s servers to be associated with your browsing session.
Your fingerprint is connected across sites – When you visit another site with the same tracking script, it recognizes your fingerprint and can connect your browsing activity across multiple sites.
Your profile grows over time – As you browse more sites, more behavioral data gets tied back to your fingerprint, gradually assembling an extensive user profile.
Some statistics on the prevalence of browser fingerprinting:
- As of 2022, over 30% of the top 1 million sites use browser fingerprinting techniques
- 63% of health websites utilize fingerprinting scripts
- 92% of sites that use fingerprinting do not notify users or ask for consent
Now you understand how browsers generate fingerprints to track you seamlessly across the web. Next, let‘s explore why companies bother fingerprinting users in the first place.
Why Companies Use Browser Fingerprinting on Users
Companies invest in browser fingerprinting for a handful of reasons:
Fingerprints enable highly targeted ads based on user interests and demographics, without relying on easily cleared cookies
They persist across devices, browsers and over time unlike cookies
Unique fingerprints mean ads can be personalized at an individual level based on browsing history
According to researchers, at least 339 advertising technology companies are actively fingerprinting users.
Fingerprints help identify automated bots and scripts vs real human users based on unusual configurations
They flag suspicious logins or account activity coming from a fingerprint that doesn‘t match the real user
Banking and financial sites can use fingerprints for continuous identity verification across logins
New fingerprints signal possible account compromise compared to a user‘s known device
Fingerprints provide rich analytics on user configurations, demographics, interests and behavior over time
These insights help sites optimize content, products, and user experience
While fingerprinting has some legitimate applications, it also poses concerning privacy implications which we need to talk about.
How Browser Fingerprinting Impacts Online Privacy
Uncontrolled browser fingerprinting represents a major shift in how users are tracked online – away from transient cookies and towards persistent, device-centric tracking.
Here are some of the top concerns around fingerprinting and privacy:
It Allows Continuous Tracking Across Sites
Because fingerprint profiles persist across sessions and devices, they enable continuous tracking as you browse the web. Your activity across countless sites can be linked back to your fingerprint.
You Can‘t Easily Mask or Change Your Fingerprint
Unlike clearing cookies, most fingerprinting attributes like your screen size or fonts can‘t be altered without changing your actual device settings. And those aren‘t very practical to change regularly.
Lack of Transparency and Consent
The vast majority of sites do not notify users or obtain consent before collecting and processing fingerprint data. Most people remain unaware of the extent to which their browser is fingerprinted.
Sensitive Demographic and Behavioral Data Gets Exposed
Fingerprint profiles can indirectly reveal ethnicity, age, interests, usage patterns and other data most would consider private. This data then gets shared with advertising networks.
In a 2021 survey, 92% of respondents said they were uncomfortable with fingerprinting being used to infer sensitive attributes for ad targeting.
It Persists Even When You Use Privacy Tools
VPNs, Tor and other privacy tools don‘t fully anonymize you because most don‘t alter the underlying fingerprint of your browser and device.
I don‘t want to scare you, but I do think it‘s important to understand the potential privacy implications. Now let‘s talk about the steps you can take to minimize fingerprinting.
Actionable Ways to Prevent Browser Fingerprinting
While no solution blocks fingerprinting completely, there are certainly ways to reduce it and make your fingerprint less distinct:
Use the Tor Browser
The Tor browser is designed to make all users look identical from a fingerprinting standpoint. It standardized configurations like:
- Screen size – 1024×768
- User agent string
- Fonts – Tor system fonts
- Disables WebGL, canvas and audio fingerprinting
By mimicking the majority Tor fingerprint, your individual fingerprint blends into the crowd.
Install Antitracking Browser Extensions
Extensions like Privacy Badger, uBlock Origin, and NoScript give you more granular control to block fingerprinting techniques:
- Prevent fingerprinting scripts from loading
- Shut down APIs used for canvas, font and plugin fingerprinting
- Spoof or randomize headers
Combine multiple extensions for the best protection.
Route Traffic Through a Common VPN or Proxy
Using a shared VPN endpoint or proxy makes your fingerprint look similar to other users browsing from the same IP address and location. It reduces fingerprint uniqueness.
Disable Unnecessary Browser Features
Most browsers let you disable specific features often used in fingerprinting:
- Camera/Microphone Access
- Notification Permissions
- Location Access
Disabling them reduces the surface area for fingerprinting.
Use Antitracking Browsers like Brave or Firefox Focus
Specialized browsers go beyond extensions to block fingerprinting at the browser level:
- Brave blocks fingerprinting scripts and APIs by default for all sites
- Firefox Focus isolates each tab to prevent cross-site tracking
Monitor Your Fingerprint with Tools like AmIUnique
Occasionally checking your browser‘s fingerprint lets you see what data is exposed so you can take further steps to lock things down if needed.
Avoid Logins and Accounts When Possible
If you never login or identify yourself on a site, your anonymous fingerprint still allows tracking but reveals less personal data compared to an account profile.
No single approach provides 100% protection against browser fingerprinting. But combining multiple techniques significantly minimizes the extent of tracking, and makes your fingerprint far less unique.
Browser Fingerprinting vs Cookies: Key Differences
Given the "new cookie" label sometimes used for browser fingerprinting, it‘s helpful to contrast how the two tracking techniques differ:
|Based on device, browser, configuration attributes||Stored as small text files on user device|
|Persists continuously across sessions||Can be cleared by user at any time|
|Very difficult to modify or mask||Can be blocked by browser privacy settings|
|No visibility to user||Requires consent by law in some regions|
|Allows tracking across sites via profiles||Isolated to domain that set the cookie|
|Challenging for user to control||More easily managed through browser|
While both have tracking uses, fingerprints provide more persistent and stealthy tracking of users across sites in a way that cookies cannot.
What Does the Future Hold for Browser Fingerprinting?
As cookies decline due to privacy laws like GDPR and blockers, fingerprinting provides a powerful persistent alternative for ad targeting and analytics.
However, browser makers and privacy advocates are trying to get ahead of tracking techniques:
Browsers like Safari and Firefox aim to restrict fingerprinting capabilities via changes to APIs, permissions, and defaults
New laws like CCPA and GDPR are expanding scope to cover device fingerprinting and require consent
Private browsing modes, antitracking browsers, and extensions avoid or spoof fingerprinting
It‘s unlikely fingerprinting will be stamped out completely. But expanding user awareness and tools can help counter the tracking arms race.
The Key Takeaways
We covered a lot of ground, so let‘s recap the key points:
Browser fingerprinting identifies you via configurations like fonts, browser, plugins etc. to track you across sites
It happens seamlessly in the background when you visit sites with tracking scripts
Fingerprints persist across time and devices unlike cookies, with serious privacy implications
Major sites use it for advertising, analytics and fraud prevention – but often without user consent
You can minimize fingerprinting by using privacy browsers, extensions, VPNs and disabling features
But blocking it entirely remains very challenging due to the diversity of fingerprinting attributes
I hope this guide gave you a much deeper understanding of what browser fingerprinting is, why it represents a threat to your privacy, and most importantly how you can minimize fingerprint tracking.
While challenging to fully stop, being aware of your fingerprint and utilizing the right tools will go a long way toward preserving your privacy as you browse the web. Remember – knowledge is power when it comes to taking control of your digital identity.