Mozilla has announced a new feature for its Firefox web browser designed to safeguard you from being tracked and watched as you move around the web. Dubbed fingerprinting, the technology allows companies to watch your habits to better surface advertisements that might appeal to your tastes.
Unlike cookies, which provide a similar function for companies, fingerprints do not require you to opt-in. So, while you’ll have to click some sort of “Yes, I Agree” button on a select screen about cookies when you visit a website for the first time, you don’t have to tap anything to be watched by fingerprinting. This makes it an incredibly powerful resource for companies …and one that’s a little frightening too, since you might not even be aware that you’re being tracked.
Fingerprinting works by building a profile of the device you’re using to access the web to try and keep track of you based on the characteristics of that gadget. The system will make a note of the basics – the brand and model of your device, for example – as well a heap of more granular information, including the screen resolution, which web browser you’re using to access the website, the timezone you’re currently in, the language used on your device, the operating system, any third-party extensions or custom fonts installed.
With any luck, when all of the above is combined together, it’s specific enough to identify you amongst the sea of other users. This unique fingerprint (hence the name) is then used by companies to watch whenever a device with all of its characteristics pops-up online. Of course, this method isn’t able to know when you switch to another device. That device will have its own fingerprint, but companies will not know both are owned by the same person (although there are other methods to track the identity as well – like using Facebook’s Like buttons, for example).
With the launch of Firefox 72 – slated for release in January 2020, Mozilla has confirmed plans to automatically block fingerprints on any sites you visit. The privacy-focused feature is part of its Enhanced Tracking Protection.
But while you’ll have to wait for January to see the block kick-in automatically, you can enable the option right now. Dive into the Options menu in your Firefox browser and then head to the Privacy & Security tab on the left-hand side and then select the Custom option. This lets you block fingerprints without having to wait around until Firefox 72’s release date next year.
Firefox is well ahead of Google Chrome, which is comfortably the most popular web browser on the planet right now.
Google promised to restrict the same fingerprint tracking process during an announcement at its annual Google IO developer conference. While it won’t outright block the system, it has promised to limit it to the point that you won’t be identified as an individual. Instead, companies will be able to keep you in a large group of similar users. Unfortunately, the privacy update hasn’t arrived quite yet.
When it does, Google will hand-out a privacy budget to websites. As usual, these sites will ping your browser with requests for information – screen resolution, which web browser you’re using to access the website, the timezone you’re currently in, etc – to narrow down your identity. This will let them whittle you down to a large cohort, but not enough that it could impact your anonymity online. Once the website has run out of “budget” to make more requests about your identifying features, Google Chrome will stop handing out any information about you.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about this topic for a while and think it’s really important that users have transparent choice and control over how they are tracked over the web,” Google Web Platform Lead Ben Galbraith told TechCrunch.
With Firefox cranking up the pressure with its announcement around automatically-on fingerprinting protections, we can only hope that Google Chrome pushes-out its privacy update sooner rather than later.