Everyone leaves a digital fingerprint. Why is it a problem for online researchers?
Traditional browsers such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari are built to track users and obtain an array of information about their device, browsing activity and more. These functions are deigned to tailor browsing experiences: to display information that’s relevant to the users’ location or offer suggestions based on their browsing history and online behaviors. Most of the information collected by browsers and websites is monetized and resold. But for an online researcher conducting sensitive investigations, this type of tracking can present a serious problem.
The same tracking mechanisms that enable personalized ads and simplify shopping experiences can be exploited by adversaries and research targets. All the data collected over time and across sites can easily give away a researcher’s digital identity and intent. And once adversaries know who you are and what you’re up to, they can disappear, cover their tracks or even launch a retaliation campaign against you or your agency — online or the real world.
What’s in a digital fingerprint?
Your digital fingerprint or browser fingerprint includes everything from which sites you click on (and which ones you skip) to the type of connection you use (IP address and provider), your hardware (device type, OS, video and audio cards), configurations (keyboard and language settings, time zones, etc.), installed software and plugins, and even seemingly random things like battery status. All of this information helps browsers track you across sessions.
And while millions of web users around the world have similar devices and search for the same terms, traditional browsers are capable of fingerprinting users based on small differences and distinct combinations of settings and behaviors that make your online presence incredibly unique.
It’s important to understand that by simply turning off the most commonly used cookies or switching to Google’s Incognito Mode or “private browsing”, investigators are not fully protecting their identities or ensuring anonymity.
Why is managed attribution important for managing your digital fingerprint?
Managed attribution lets you control and customize how your digital fingerprint appears to sites that you interact with online. It gives you the ability to manipulate any number of identifiable details, such as keyboard and language preferences, time zone selections, browser and OS settings, and lots more. By matching these details to average site visitors of sites you’re investigating, analysts and law enforcement professionals can blend in with the crowd and avoid tipping off investigative targets.
Managed attribution is delivered through purpose-built browsers for online investigations:
Spoofing geolocation to further change your digital fingerprint
Websites may block users coming from certain regions or IP addresses, or they may display different information to these visitors which could impact investigations. In addition to changing digital fingerprint settings, researchers looking to manage their attribution can benefit from using a global egress network to spoof geolocation and appear as an in-region visitor.
Leveraging a network of internet egress nodes lets you adjust the location from which you appear to be visiting, showing a local IP address that doesn’t refer to you or your agency. This ensures you can view and collect data as the visitor you desire to be, not the visitor you are.
Cloud-based browsing to eliminate persistent tracking and maintain security
Cloud-based browsers execute all web code remotely, so it never reaches the endpoint, giving users a benign video display to interact with. Using a cloud-based browser not only enables analysts and law enforcement to isolate their investigative browsing from their device and network — protecting them from malicious content — it can also segregate browsing itself.
While all cloud-based browsers provide protection from malware to your device/network, not all provide anonymity during online research. Some can obfuscate connection to your organization, attributing to the cloud service provider, while others can obfuscate even that. To avoid persistent tracking between web sessions, these more advanced cloud-based browsers can provide a fresh, non-attributed browsing session every time they’re launched; and paired with managed attribution, they can control tracking and attribution within a session.
Cloud-based browsers can also support multiple sessions with each executing its own virtual container and using different digital fingerprints at the same time. This can help investigators segregate and not cross-contaminate browsing sessions for different sites of interest, different investigations and different purposes (i.e., personal browsing vs. browsing for investigative purposes).
With so much information collected about your every move, it’s hard to remain anonymous online. And while for ordinary citizens it’s an annoyance at best, for online researchers, the digital fingerprint can impede their ability to do their work and compromise the integrity of their investigations. Knowing what’s being tracked and having the right toolset to conceal their identity and intent can help researchers better use the internet to gather data on malicious actors without jeopardizing their mission or putting their organizations at risk.
To learn more about how you can control your digital fingerprint, see: