As the proverb goes, “Give a man a mask and he’ll show his true face.” Anonymity on the internet is a powerful thing, enabling users to freely speak their mind and share information. Yet, increasingly, even supposedly anonymous services have found ways to track their user. Inherent to the protocol used, every computer has an identifying IP address, domain name, and other device-specific information which provides a “digital fingerprint.” Only by recognizing this issue and applying safe browsing practices may users hope to stay safe online.
Typically, websites use this information for two purposes: anonymized statistical data, or targeted advertising. Even without logging in or agreeing to any terms of service, websites can begin logging your browsing history and sharing it with services like Google Analytics or Adsense. This data may then be paired with any additional inputs or logins, just as fingerprints can be identified to a person. Thus, even going incognito won’t stop a site like Amazon from tracking which items you view.
Despite how easy it is to track users, there are still ways to remain anonymous. Modern browsers provide a “do not track” setting, but this relies on websites to act ethically and obey the setting. Instead, using a VPN or proxy is the first step to taking back privacy. Subscribing to a service which doesn’t store logs or payment information is the best way to mask a digital fingerprint. Additionally, most browsers offer privacy extensions which protect against other fingerprinting methods. Ghostery and Privacy Badger are two extensions which claim to block most tracking services. By combining these methods, users still have a chance to stay anonymous on the internet.
Author: Grey Ruessler, IT User Services
McDowell, M. (2019, September 27). How Anonymous Are You? Retrieved October 25, 2019, from https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/tips/ST05-008.