Need another reason to be paranoid about companies and governments watching what you're doing online? A technology researcher has created a web tool that shows just how easy it is to identify you based on nothing more than a click.
Called Panopticlick, the tool comes from Electronic Frontier Foundation staff technologist Peter Eckersley. He wanted to show how easy it would be for a bad person - let's call her Eve - to identify you based entirely on information she gets when you visit her website. No, Eve isn't tricking you into filling out forms with personal information. And she's not shooting evil code into your computer from afar. All she's doing is looking over the data that almost any web host gathers from its visitors, which is to say: What kind of computer you have, what operating system it runs, what kind of browser you are using to surf the web, and what kinds of plugins you have on that browser.
Maybe you didn't know that most sites gather that data. Or maybe you did, but you always thought, "Who cares? That's not personal information." Unfortunately, it is.
When you visit a website, you are allowing that site to access a lot of information about your computer's configuration. Combined, this information can create a kind of fingerprint - a signature that could be used to identify you and your computer.
In another essay, Eckersley explains how many pieces of unique data are required to identify someone - not very many, it turns out. As long as you have many unique properties to your computer configuration, our evil Eve could conceivably track you down without you ever knowing she was even trying to do it.
Want to find out how unique your browser fingerprint is? Eckersley says:
Our new website Panopticlick will anonymously log the configuration and version information from your operating system, your browser, and your plug-ins, and compare it to our database of five million other configurations. Then, it will give you a uniqueness score - letting you see how easily identifiable you might be as you surf the web.
My score didn't make me very happy. Apparently, my configuration is "unique among the 46,293 tested so far." My browser fingerprint "conveys at least 15.5 bits of identifying information." Great.
Luckily, there are solutions that will help protect your privacy, and EFF recommends several.
Please participate in the research by testing your browser on the Panopticlick site!