Canvas Fingerprinting: Web Tracking just Turned More Stubborn

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Tracking cookies have been one of the oldest and most trusted tricks in the books for advertisers who are obsessed with learning a bit more about Internet users. Annoyed and, to an extent, unnerved by the constant tracking, many of you may already have blocked cookies and installed software on your computers to keep the advertisers blindfolded. You may not be too glad to read this, but your efforts may simply not be enough, at least not anymore. Researchers have discovered that tracking companies have turned to a newer web tracking technique, canvas fingerprinting. Unlike its predecessors, it isn’t affected by higher privacy settings or ad blocking tools. It’s clear that a unique solution is required for overcoming this stubborn new technique.

Tracking just Got Sneakier

Canvas fingerprinting tracks users’ web behavior by using the Canvas API of modern browsers such as Firefox, Chrome, etc. It creates a consistent fingerprint, a small image file obtainable within a fraction, by exploiting the subtle differences in the rendering of identical text. If the jargon-filled explanation flew over your head, here’s a much simpler explanation: trackers are using a special kind of web code to draw unique, hidden images of the pages that users visit.

During a study, researchers scrutinized the homepages of top 100,000 sites, only to discover that more than 5.5 percent of these included canvas printing scripts. 95 percent of these contaminated sites were running scripts from one provider in particular, addthis.com. Reportedly, the company is only testing the technique and is likely to wind it down due to the inaccuracy of the results. Of course, we all wish for that to happen sooner than later.

No Need to Panic for Users of Mobile Devices

Users of mobile devices can breathe a sigh of relief as the canvas fingerprinting technique has hardly a threat to their online privacy. The script doesn’t work on the likes of cell phones and tablets because from the mobile browser’s point of view, they all have the same font and plug-ins. In order to create a meaningful fingerprint, the script relies on these two things. Since you cannot install fonts and plug-ins on mobile devices, every mobile browser looks and acts the same. It seems that it’s only the desktop users who need to be worrying about their online behavior being tracked by some third party and quite possibly its clients.

The Battle of Wits

How you really feel about this new tracking technique is really something that’s up to you to decide. However, you simply cannot disagree with the fact that it was a very smart hand by the advertisers and tracking companies. That being said, the latter may not be able to gleefully spy on unsuspecting users for too long. While the fingerprinting technology may be nearly impossible to block, nobody said that it cannot be beaten. It may be defeated by an add-on that floods the tracker with false data. Creating noise in the data being mined can leave the company behind tracking with a plethora of information mixed with what can best be described as junk for whoever is involved in tracking.

It’s a real shame how the whole Internet experience is being ruined by the ambitious goals of companies and people with similar interests. Hopefully, the advertisers will realize their mistakes quickly and stick to more ethical and acceptable practices, while companies and web developers behind such scripts are brought to justice.

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