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Internet Privacy - Blocking Cookies Is Not Enough

Contributor:
David Silversmith
David Silversmith

Many people block Internet cookies and think that they are now assured anonymity on the Internet, but the truth is that computers and users can easily be tracked even without delicious cookies.

You can use the options in your browser to disable cookies for select or all sites, but what you can not easily stop is your browser from freely divulging a ton of information.  If asked by a website, your browser will volunteer information like operating system, plug-ins, version numbers, installed system fonts, screen resolution and color options. When this data is stored in a database and used along with with other details such as IP address (every device needs an IP address to work on the internet), this information becomes a digital fingerprint that could be used to track a specific computer.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created a tool called Panopticlick to highlight these risks. The US-based EFF was founded back in 1990 — well before the Internet was on most people's radar — and works to defend free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights in the digital world.

The Panopticlick Web site has collected hundreds of thousands of digital fingerprints. I ran the test on the site, and it told me that my Firefox browser configuration is unique based on its database of fingerprints.  When I ran it again a few days later (using a different IP address) it reported that only "one in 311,364 browsers have the same fingerprint as yours" clearly having matched my prior test on this computer.  Panopticlick also reported that my browser has a fingerprint that conveys "18.25 bits of identifying information."

The EFF reports that typically "User Agent strings contain about 10.5 bits of identifying information, meaning that if you pick a random person's browser, only one in 1,500 other Internet users will share their User Agent string."  Because my browser provides 18.25 bits, I have become even more identifiable.

For users who want to maintain a higher degree of anonymity, the best solution, at least one that does not involve lots of configuration, appears to involve switching to a mobile browser. The EFF reports that "Current versions of the iPhone, Android and Blackberries do not vary much with respect to plugins, installed fonts or screen size." 

So you can turn off cookies, but you are still leaving a trail of cookie crumbs. 

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