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.