Tracking is one of the things that Internet users are exposed to no matter where they go. Websites use analytics software to track them, advertising companies use tracking to make more money because of targeted ads, and social media sites too may know where you have been almost at all times because of buttons and scripts that are installed on the majority of websites.
There are less obvious ways to track users though, and one of them comes in the form of a browser's fingerprint. When you connect to a website, information about your system and browser is made available to the server you are connecting to. The information may be used to fingerprint the browser; this may work really well, especially if enough identifiers are known. Considering that the remote server has access to information such as the browser's user agent, headers, time zone, screen size and color depth, plugins, fonts and a number of other data points, it is quite possible to generate fingerprints and use these in addition to other tracking methods.
The idea behind Panopticlick was to provide Internet users with the means to look up how unique their browser's fingerprint really is. To find out, simply load the website and run the test on it. You end up with a score in the end that tells you if your browser is unique among the browsers that have been tested so far, or if it shares the same fingerprint with others.
Unique is a bad thing in this test, as it means that no other tested browser shared all characteristics with yours. With that fingerprint created, it is theoretically possible to identify you on websites that you visit, provided that your browser got a unique score.
That score changes when parameters change, however, and there is always the chance that another browser may have the same fingerprint.
Note: While the score is displayed as unique by the test, it does not necessarily mean that it is indeed unique, considering that the majority of Internet users have not tested their browser on the site.
If you do not like the idea of your browser having a unique score, you may be interested in tweaking it to reduce the identifying bits of information that it reveals when it connects to websites.
This may sound easy at first, but is not really because of the following. Some information cannot be disabled, as they are always transferred no matter what you do. Disabling certain features, like plugins, can also be used for the fingerprinting. If you run your browser without plugins, then this is a clue that websites can use as well for the fingerprinting but it is better than revealing unique plugins to sites.
So how do you get your browser from having a unique fingerprint to one that shares its fingerprint with other browsers?
The idea here is to modify settings such as the user agent or screen size and depth so that they match the largest percentage of browsers. Instead of using a Firefox Nightly user agent for example, you may use a user agent that is more commonly used.
One option that Firefox users have for that is the Random Agent Spoofer extension. It has not been updated in a year but it is still working fine. It changes settings to common values so that your browser's fingerprint turns out to be less unique than it actually would be without.
Probably the most interesting option that it provides you with is its random mode. Fingerprint tracking can only work if the browser's fingerprint does not change. If yours is random, because of changing information, then it is not really possible to identify all those random fingerprints as belonging to a single browser, unless other tracking technologies are used in addition to that.
Note: The user agent used by the extension is an old Firefox user agent. The reason why it works that well in the test is likely that other users who have installed the extension in Firefox have taken the test on the Panopticlick website in the past.
If you are not using Firefox, your options to reduce your browser's fingerprint may be limited. You can try and install a user agent modifier and switch to a common one, disable plugins such as Java or Flash to avoid them providing websites with a list of fonts your system supports, but that is about it.
Have another tip on how to cope with browser fingerprinting? Let me know in the comments.Advertisement
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Ghacks is a technology news blog that was founded in 2005 by Martin Brinkmann. It has since then become one of the most popular tech news sites on the Internet with five authors and regular contributions from freelance writers.