The Myth of Online Anonymity: Stanford and Princeton Researchers Shows We’re Less Anonymous Than We think


In a recently concluded experiment of Princeton and Stanford researchers revealed that we leave digital clues whenever we browse the web and it's not impossible for us to be identified and targeted.

The project, aptly called Footprint ran through the summer and ended last month. The experiment invited participants and which gave the researchers access to what is supposed to be their private browsing information which includes information about the participants' Twitter usage.

The Footprint research team members included Ansh Shukla, senior mathematics major, engineering assistant professor Sharad Goel and Jessica Su, a PhD student of computer science all from Stanford. Arvind Narayanan, assistant professor of Computer Science from Princeton is also part of the team.

On the first day of the experiment, they were able to identify 11 out of the 13 participants. Though the experiment closed last October, by then, 300 participants have joined and Footprint was able to identify 80% of them accurately.

The researchers used the information they got from the the participants: what links they clicked through in Twitter while browsing in Chrome. This unique set of links leave clues - just like a digital fingerprint that would trace the click throughs back to the participant by crawling millions profiles.

Think of it this way: Harry, Hermione and Ron all volunteered to participate anonymously. All might follow the University Herald for college news but Ron and Hermione are also following The Guardian for their regular news while Harry prefers BBC.

The links they click on at the time can be considered unique and researchers, using crawlers can pinpoint the websites our volunteers visited, including the links they tweeted and other browsing information stored in cookies.

Prof. Narayanan earlier published his paper that highlighted the vulnerabilities of data anonymization in the web. His researched used Netflix data and by cross-referencing it with IMDb users he was able to identify unique and individual users.

While privacy risks and security concerns on the internet are nothing new, the Footprints experiment points to the fact that sooner or later we will no longer be anonymous - internet companies, marketers and data-miners might be looking to find you using your browsing information. Eventually, you become a target of specific marketing campaigns and the like.

If anything, the proponents of the study hope that they were able to raise awareness with their experiment - that we become conscious of how much information we actually share online.

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