You’ve seen the ads, “Meet Hot Singles in [insert your city here]!” or “Find amazing prices at [closest dealership to your house]!”.
…Or at least that’s how I remember them before I started blocking all of my ads (don’t worry, I’ll tell you how I do it in another blog post)…
But how do they know where you live? What else do they know about you? Who are they? It can be a bit frightening not knowing what information you’re spreading around unintentionally, or how that information is being collected and used.
Let’s start with the basics: cookies. No, not the tasty ones – the ones that hold information about where you’ve been online, what you’ve done at particular web pages, and even some of your interests. You’ve probably heard of them before. Any time you visit a webpage that needs to store information about your visit (for the most part), it does so with cookies. Did you save an item to cart? That’s probably a cookie. Do you want the weather website you frequent to load your city’s data? Cookie. Playing online games that keep your high score safe? Cookie! It’s not that cookies are bad; cookies make the internet work for you. It’s those who exploit the fact that cookies are inherently a weak data source that give cookies a bad wrap.
But the reality is, even without cookies, which store a lot of information about you, there’s still even more that you inadvertently share while online.
Moving on… Let’s talk about IP addresses. When you connect online, your computer (or your router) gets an IP address. For simplicity’s sake, I won’t go into IPv4 vs IPv6 – or any other of the many network acronyms. What does an IP address say about you?
Interestingly enough, with features such as GeoIP it’s possible to get a fairly accurate idea of where your computer is located. You can even do it yourself (it’s safe and easy, don’t be afraid): Visit http://whatismyipaddress.com and see how close the location is to your home. Chances are, it identified your ISP (Internet Service Provider), City, State, and, yes, your public IP address – that magic number that says so much about you. Again, like cookies, this is not intended for harm – it just so happens to be one of the many slices of information that you blare out every time you browse the web.
That’s kinda scary right? Well, before I talk about device fingerprinting, I should warn you that whatismyipaddress is just the tip of the iceberg.
You probably have never heard of a Device Fingerprint. Simply put, it’s information about what type of device you are using and (to a lesser degree) who you are. In certain cases, your device fingerprint can be used in lieu of cookies in order for a website to remember your identity. What does your device fingerprint look like, you ask? Again, don’t be afraid: Visit http://noc.to and see for yourself. Whaddayaknow, your public IP address is there with similar information. (Where whatismyipaddress may have displayed your main hub information down to a 15 mile radius, noc.to gets it down to a 1.5 mile radius.) Digging deeper, you will see:
- the browser and version you are using
- the Operating System your computer runs (Mac OS, Windows, Android, iOS, etc) and version
- the language you prefer
- whether you use Java, Flash, and/or Cookies
- your screen resolution
- which plugins your device publicly displays
- where your mouse is on the screen (and)
- where your mouse is within the browser window
If you scroll all the way down and click on the Geolocation Tester tool, you can even get the location down to a .05 mile radius (you would have to allow that data to be shared – a first in this whole post). Hey – that’s your house!
Again, all of this information is more or less completely innocuous, and completely necessary for you to enjoy the web the way that you do. Having your User Agent information is key to making sure that a website looks as best it can on your device, so you can have as pleasant an experience as possible. Anything less, and you’ll just close the tab.
Yep, Cookies, GeoIP, and Device FingerPrints are some of the many ways you expose yourself online. Not expose, so much as announce. Any website you visit can learn quite a bit about you just with that information. What they then do with that free, publicly available, information is entirely up to them. Why not pass it on to some advertisers to make those ads a bit more relevant? You might even click one, generating additional revenue for that very site. Are you using an outdated operating system or a weak browser? Wonderful, have some malware! Located in a major city? Check out another service you’ll probably never need! Is it Saturday night and you’re browsing from a residential address? Must be lonely, Meet some sexy singles in your area!
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, I hope you can still go online! Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to remedy some of these holes and tweak a few settings so you can have some fun…