Culture

You can be identified by your browsing habits. Yes, you.

Browsing histories can be digital goldmines for identifying users. And that should worry us all.

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If you thought you could browse in privacy and peace, think again. According to this latest paper titled Replication: Why We Still Can't Browse In Peace by Sarah Bird, Ilana Segall, and Martin Lopatka, your web browsing habits can create a composite sketch of your identity. The researchers took a large dataset involving about 52,000 Firefox users and were able to identify a total 48,919 of those people.

The paper then notes that the findings were 99 percent "unique." The research replicates a previous study on the subject done in 2012 and extends the findings to note that, yep, your web browsing habits aren't impossible to comb through and spot you with. Like metadata on mobile phones, it turns out browsing habits tend to provide enough unique identifiers that linking them to individuals is rudimentary with enough information.

I can see you — The web tracking ecosystem isn't some abstract concept. It targets quite literally how you consume the web, including the kinds of advertisements you receive, commercial videos that pop up on your social media feed, what kind of products you're suggested, and more. Apple's promising to cut down on some of this with its forthcoming iOS 14, much to Facebook's chagrin.

Being this visible to analytics and advertisement services allows them to create unique profiles based on your browsing habits. You probably already know this but it's a massive privacy concern for millions of internet users. "In the modern context, increasing the usability of fingerprinting and transient identifiers is at the forefront of the technical web tracking discussion," the authors of the study wrote. The avalanche of these ads carry their own negative impact on our mental health as well, apart from the privacy threats they pose.

A digital goldmine of information — For a while now, researchers have attempted to dig deeper and better understand how easily exploitable our browsing histories and habits are. In Everybody Lies, Harvard economist and ex-Google data scientist Seth Stephen-Davidowitz wrote about what our browsing histories say about our actual preferences — you know, the real likes and dislikes we have, not the ones we signal to others in social contexts. The author gives us a glimpse into people's highly personal — and, admittedly, often uncomfortable — preferences and ideological positions around sex, race, reproductive health, crime, commerce, and more.

It's a goldmine of deeply intimate details by way of commonly used search engines and internet browsers. And don't think that browsing incognito or similar helps, because all that does is stop the browser saving your history — browser makers, ISPs, and other organizations can still see where you've been online.

Those details can be extrapolated by researchers with the help of, as this paper shows, studying the periods of browsing, the volumes of data collected, and other forms of information. It's not an impossible task. And the fact that almost 49,000 users could be identified means that internet privacy still has a long, long way to go before it can be trusted blindly.