Your browser is generally a tattletale, willing to divulge many secrets it knows about you or can find out, just for the asking. It’s not really the browser’s fault; that’s just how most browsers are made. We’ll show you how to find out what your browser is willing to tell about you, and how to keep it quiet.
There are various ways to ask for location information, but one of the common methods is to use a set of APIs used by Google for geolocation. The APIs were developed to allow ads to be tailored for your location; ads for a local pizza shop or a nearby auto dealer are just a couple of examples.
When I tried this out with the Google geolocation API, the result for my location was off by 17 miles. That’s a lot better than a simple IP lookup (more about that later), which can put you pretty far away from your actual location.
But it’s not just Google using location information. Your Mac has built-in location services as well. Thankfully, you get to control which apps are allowed to make use of the Location Services. You can find location options in the Security & Privacy preference pane, under the Privacy tab.
Internet Connection Information
Whenever you use your browser to access a website, one or more connections to the web server are made. Part of making that connection is to use your public IP as the address to send data to.
Your IP address is also used every time you connect to a service on the Internet. Along with the IP address is a wealth of additional information that can be associated with the IP. This includes the ISP you’re using since IP address blocks are assigned to ISPs, making it a simple matter to look up who has control of an IP address, as well as the location where the IP is being used. Luckily, determining location based only on an IP address usually isn’t very accurate. Based solely on IP-based location, I’m currently in an entirely different county, quite a distance from where I really am.
Another method is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN, like an anonymous web proxy, will also hide your public IP. The difference is an anonymous web proxy only handles web-based traffic, while a VPN handles all Internet traffic.
Another method is to use the TOR Browser. This browser is designed to use the TOR network to ensure anonymous browsing.
Operating System, Browser, Plugins
The browser you’re using is happy to disclose the operating system you’re using, the browser you’re using (also known as the User Agent), and the browser plug-ins that are currently active.
Additional Details Your Browser Can Reveal
Forwarder: This is the page you were on before you loaded the current page.
Installed software: In some cases, a site will check on specific software that is installed on the computer. One example for this type of use is when a website has embedded content that requires a plug-in or app to be installed.
Fonts installed: Some browsers will limit this to just fonts available to the browser, while others will list every font installed on your system.
We’ve all heard about how cookies can be used to track our movements around the Internet. It’s one of the reasons many web users disable cookies or use some type of cookie management system, to help keep the ad networks at bay and prevent them from tracking us.
With enough data gathered, a unique fingerprint is created that can be compared against whenever you access a website. With enough information, the fingerprint becomes unique, allowing your computer to be tracked wherever you go without ever having to set any type of cookie or web tracker locally on your computer.
Keeping it quiet: It’s hard to prevent fingerprinting, but there are some techniques you can use, starting with making your computer seem as common as possible; the less unique you are, the better. There are some plugins designed to reduce the effectiveness of fingerprinting, including Privacy Badger, which works with Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, or Disconnect, which works with Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.
The TOR browser is another option, as it has been designed to make fingerprinting as difficult as possible.
Disable It All
Browsers are getting better, adding features to combat some of the top security issues, including disclosing information without asking for permission to do so. One of the easiest weapons you can deploy is a modern, up-to-date browser, and keep it current.
Websites to Check Out How Your Browser Behaves
There are a few websites you can visit to see just what information your browser is willing to reveal. If you would like to test your browser, check out:
- Panopticlick: Tests your browser for how it responds to online trackers.
- clickclickclick: Displays how your activity at a website can be monitored. This is an interactive site that includes a voice over that on occasion may use non-work safe phrases.
- webkay: A demonstration website that displays properties your browser is willing to send to its web server.