You Are Less Anonymous on the Web Than You Think–Much Less

by  Vignesh Ramachandran,   Stanford University

A user’s anonymous browsing history, tweets, emails, and cookies can be used to piece together their identity, according to a team of Stanford University and Princeton University researchers.

Participants in the study, called the Footprints Project, were invited to share their anonymous browsing data and Twitter activity through the project website. The names of sites clicked on through Twitter while using Google Chrome were compiled and compared with users’ Twitter profiles and the other accounts they followed. Out of nearly 300 users who visited the site, the system accurately identified 80 percent of them.

The project is part of a growing body of research exploring privacy vulnerabilities on the Web. Most websites use cookies, and even if users regularly clear their cookies, many advertisers and Internet companies likely have most of their anonymous browsing history. The data can be used by commercial entities to link an anonymous person with a real identity and target specific consumers with an ad campaign. “You should kind of go into the Internet assuming that everything you go to, someone might learn about someday,” says Stanford researcher Ansh Shukla.

Shukla hopes that as people realize how easy it is to track their digital footprints, this will lead to a change of policy, such as collecting far less data. He also envisions new technologies to empower consumers that are more powerful than the “do not track” setting on browsers – an injunction often ignored by websites.  Read the report.

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