Panopticlick — How Unique, and Trackable, Is Your Browser?

Is it possible to defend against browser fingerprinting?

Browser fingerprinting is quite a powerful method of tracking users around the Internet. There are some defensive measures that can be taken with existing browsers, but none of them are ideal.

Try to use a "non-rare" browser

The most obvious way to try to prevent browser fingerprinting is to pick a "standard", "common" browser. It turns out that this is surprisingly hard to do. It appears that the most likely candidate would be the latest version of Firefox running on a modern Windows version. But even so, many of those Firefox on Windows browsers can be distinguished from one another by the enourmous range of plugin versions and fonts that can be installed with them.

Pending the results of the Panopticlick experiment, the only browsers which we believe really meet the conflicting criteria of being common but not accompanied by high-entropy plugin and font configurations are the browsers in smartphones. This is not intuitive, since these browsers tend to be less common than desktop browsers. But, importantly, there are few other variables beyond the user agent. Current versions of the iPhone, Android, and Blackberries do not vary much with respect to plugins, installed fonts, or screen size. This situation may well change in the future, but until it does, most of these devices are far less fingerprintable than any sort of desktop PC.

Disable JavaScript

Disabling JavaScript is a powerful defense against browser fingerprinting, because it cuts off the methods that websites can use to detect plugins and fonts, as well as preventing the use of most kinds of supercookie. Unfortunately, JavaScript is necessary to make a lot of sites work well.

At least two ways to block some sites from using JavaScript while allowing others to use it are available. One, NoScript, tends to be overprotective: it will block JavaScript everywhere and allow you to manually reenable it for some sites. This is a lot of work, and requires good intuitions about when a site isn't working because JavaScript is disabled. The other, AdBlock Plus, tends to be underprotective. AdBlock Plus tends to be quite good at blocking ads, because users can instantly see when they're present. Tracking or fingerprinting scripts are generally invisible, so even the AdBlock Plus subscriptions that focus on privacy will tend to miss a lot of tracking sites.

Use TorButton

Modern versions of TorButton "standardize" various browser charcteristics like the User Agent string, in order to prevent them from being used to track Tor users. TorButton is also quite agressive at blocking JavaScript in the browser. Taken together, these measures make TorButton a strong defense against fingerprinting. Unfortunately, browsing through Tor is currently a lot slower than browsing without it.

A Better Solution: Browsers' "Private Browsing" Modes

There is a lot that browser and plugin developers could do to protect their users against fingerprint tracking. In general, it might not be a good engineering decision to remove all of the version-number entropy from browsers, since knowing the precise version of flash, quicktime, or whatever, is occasionally useful for debugging.

One solution would be to add a "debugging" mode to browsers, and to round version numbers off when the browser is not in debugging mode. Another solution would be to improve the "private browsing" modes that are already present in most modern browsers, so that when the mode is active, User Agent, navigator.plugins and font lists take on standardized values (or, perhaps, normalized values).

A research project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation