Your ‘Anonymized’ Web Browsing History May Not Be Anonymous

by John Sullivan, Princeton University

Researchers at Princeton and Stanford universities have found a specific person’s online behavior can be identified by linking anonymous Web browsing histories with social media profiles.

Although the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently adopted privacy rules for Internet service providers permitting them to store and use consumer information only when it is “not reasonably linkable” to individual users, the study suggests pseudonymous browsing histories fail this test.

“Users may assume they are anonymous when they are browsing a news or a health website, but our work adds to the list of ways in which tracking companies may be able to learn their identities,” said Narayanan, an affiliated faculty member at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

“Each person’s browsing history is unique and contains tell-tale signs of their identity,” said Sharad Goel, an assistant professor at Stanford and an author of the study.

The researchers wanted to determine if it was possible to de-anonymize Web browsing and identify a user even if the browsing history did not include identities. They limited themselves to publicly available information, with social media profiles that include links to outside Web pages offering the strongest possibilities. The team created an algorithm to compare anonymous browsing histories with links appearing in people’s public social media accounts.

“Given a history with 30 links originating from Twitter, we can deduce the corresponding Twitter profile more than 50 percent of the time,” the researchers note. “All the evidence we have seen piling up over the years showing the strong limits of data anonymization, including this study, really emphasizes the need to rethink our approach to privacy and data protection in the age of big data,” says Imperial College London professor Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye. Read the report.

DCL: So, if you really want to remain anonymous, visit a few random websites that are not on your normal sphere of interest!

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