Companies such as Facebook use your data to track you. Apple is planning to stop them.

Did you know that every browser you use has its own digital fingerprint? Small pieces of data such as your monitor size and the fonts that you have installed make you easy to track. Social media companies and advertising networks can, and do, use this data to track your online activity.

Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi recently announced that the next version of Safari will fight this type of online tracking. During his keynote address at Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, Federighi revealed that the upcoming Safari browser will have two very important developments. Firstly, Safari will make it more difficult for advertising networks to use your browser’s digital fingerprints. Secondly, companies such as Facebook that use ‘like’ elements to follow your browsing patterns will find this type of tracking more difficult for Safari users.

What is digital fingerprinting?
Seemingly innocuous details such as your browser’s language, system fonts and time zone settings can help data trackers to identify the type of machine you are running. Let’s say you want to browse the web anonymously and decide to install and run The Onion Router (TOR) browser. When you open the browser window, you’ll notice it doesn’t automatically enter full screen. Why? Maximizing your screen allows websites to determine your monitor size, which can help them to track you. Monitor size is one of the many pieces of data can comprise your browser’s digital fingerprint. Websites can use this to track and identify your computer, and potentially your identity.

This type of activity may sound malicious but it actually has many benefits. Cybersecurity experts can use this type of information to identify computers used to commit fraud or cyber attacks, for instance. Where this data becomes problematic is when it is improperly used by private companies to invade people’s online privacy. According to Shape Security’s director of engineering Jarrod Overson, a browser’s digital fingerprint can “lead up to something specific” and can compromise users’ privacy.

What is my browser’s digital fingerprint?
Every browser has a digital fingerprint and to find out what it is, you can visit a number of websites, such as Panopticlick, a research project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://panopticlick.eff.org/). Services such as Panopticlick will tell you what your browser’s fingerprint is and how well your browser protects you against tracking. Simply click the “Test Me” button on the Panopticlick homepage and you’ll see how trackable your browser is.

How is Apple fighting tracking strategies?
According to Apple’s Federighi, the upcoming version of Safari will only give websites the bare minimum of details. By making your Mac look exactly the same as everyone else’s, companies will have a much tougher time identifying your device and tracking you. During his keynote address, Federighi pointed out that Safari’s Private browsing mode (similar to Chrome’s Incognito Mode) only protects your internet history from people who may have physical access to your computer.

The second method of tracking involves companies such as Facebook using elements such as ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ buttons on web pages to help track your behavior. During a recent interview, Shape Security’s Shuman Ghosemajumder outlined how this approach works. When you visit a website with a Facebook ‘Like’ button underneath an article, the ‘Like’ button is actually “served from the Facebook domain” directly. This means that when you click on the button, you are sending a “call” from “your browser to the Facebook services,” says Ghosemajumder. When you do this from multiple websites, Facebook is able to identify your browsing history and there is little you can do to stop it.

The forthcoming Safari browser is fighting against this too. Federighi said that future Safari users who click on social buttons will be presented with a dialogue box that asks you whether you want to allow tracking. This should help Safari stay safer and enjoy greater privacy while online.

How can you stop online tracking?
If you don’t want to wait for the next Safari update, you can make your online browsing less trackable right now by installing a free tool called Privacy Badger. Like Panopticlick, this is also made by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is available for most major browsers including Chrome, Opera and Firefox. This will give your browser strong protection against web tracking but will not protect you from fingerprinting; your browser will still have a unique fingerprint.

After adding the Privacy Badger extension to Chrome, I re-tested my browser with Panopticlick. The results were much improved compared with running without the extension however my browser still has a “unique fingerprint”. This means that my browser is still visible to websites that want to track me. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming version of Safari performs against Panopticlick measures.

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