'Twas the study group before Christmas, and all through the group,
All papers were read, by Damgard and Shoup.
The stockings were hung, the schemes were secured,
With hopes that the crypto, security ensured.
With billions of us browsing the web everyday the web has become a major source of revenue for advertising companies. By exploiting characteristics of web browsers, companies can fingerprint users and perform more targeted advertising. Most (tech savy) people are nowadays familiar with the concept of a cookie (and not the type left out for Santa on Christmas Eve). In short, this is a file left behind on your computer when you visit a particular website and is used to recognise you the next time you re-visit the website. Recent legislation has meant that websites must make clear that a cookie will be stored on your machine (see the EU Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications). A cookie, however, is not the only way to fingerprint a user. Mayer in 2009 [pdf] and Eckersley in 2010 [pdf] showed that it was possible to exploit characteristics such as screen dimension and the list of installed fonts, in order to invisibly fingerprint a user (see below for more details). In total Eckersley was able to uniquely fingerprint 94.2% of half a million users. In last week's study group Luke discussed the paper "FPDetective: dusting the Web for Fingerprints" by Acar et al. [pdf]. This paper presents a framework which can be used to detect when websites are using these (alternative) fingerprinting techniques and presents results which show that such techniques are used in the wild.
How does fingerprinting work?
- navigator - This will contain information about the browser vendor and version, plugins supported, MIME types and some information about the OS and architecture of the machine running the browser.
- screen - Information about the resolution of the monitor, and number of colours and pixel depth.
By hashing the concatenation of the content of these two objects (together with the list of plugins and MIMEtypes), Mayer was able to uniquely identify 96% of a total of 1328 clients. Eckersley extended this in the Panopticlick project by including further contents, one of which was the list of fonts. Surprisingly the list of fonts plays a big role in the uniqueness of fingerprints. As mentioned earlier Eckersley uniquely fingerprinted 94.2% of half a million users. For readers interested to see if their own browser fingerprint is unique they can visit the Panopticlick website to test it out.
The Tor Browser lists cross-origin fingerprinting unlinkability as a security goal, so unsurprisingly it has strong defences against fingerprinting. It does this by trying to make all browser sessions look the same. It also limits font-based fingerprinting by bounding the number of fonts that a page can requests (Acar et al. found a vulnerability against this but it has since been fixed in recent versions of Tor).
Firegloves was a proof of concept Firefox extension created for research purposes which tries to randomise the fingerprint. Acar et al. found that it was quite ineffective against preventing fingerprinting but since it is no longer maintained this could be because of changes to the Firefox extension system. Ironically since Firegloves itself is detectable this could actually become part of the data used to fingerprint a user due to its limited user base (1750 users).
"Do Not Track" (DNT) is an HTTP header field which allows users to request that websites do not perform any tracking and is implemented in many modern web browsers. Acar et al. ran their experiments again, this time with the DNT field set to 1, but found that this yielded exactly the same results. This shows that websites are simply ignoring user's tracking preferences.