Can You Really Become Untraceable Online? VPNs And Browser Fingerprinting Explored

At present as of 2020, as unbelievable as it is to fathom, it has now been more than 30 years since the development of the internet. Even though the internet has technically existed even prior to the 90s as a project (for academic, scientific and military purposes), no one expected it to be an integral part of our everyday lives in the way that it is today. 

The World Wide Web was officially launched in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee. Pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the WWW, had implemented his vision of a public web that is open to everyone. Following these events, the year 1992 was critical for the WWW, as this was the year when Congress approved commercial transactions and the internet was fully operational as we know it today.

So, why is the need to be untraceable today so important, even for the common man? In order to understand this and the links between VPNs and browser fingerprinting, we first need to look at these terms individually and then delve into the benefits that you can get from this combination.

Some Background on VPNs

Having mentioned a brief background of the internet above, it’s important to look at what a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is, and why it was created. A VPN is, simply put, software that you can download (with paid and free versions of the software available) that will protect you from external threats as well as increase your anonymity online. It allows you to cloak your IP address (your computer’s internet address) by putting another server (a tunnel) between you and the internet network.

A VPN is one of the only tools you can utilize if you don’t want your geographical location to be known, to protect yourself from hackers and to generally have peace of mind while surfing. Early forms of the VPN we know today stem from Microsoft’s Peer-to-Peer Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP) which was implemented in 1996 to ensure secure internet data throughput.

The need for VPNs appeared as soon as internet data breaches started happening and people became aware that the internet can be a dangerous place. Internet data breaches started becoming a very serious problem in the early 2000s. For example, between 2003-2008 hundreds of millions of people were affected by data breaches including companies such as Visa, Citigroup and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, among many others. There really weren’t any protection systems or legislations put in place to protect the public at the time, compared to the scale they are at today.

Browser Fingerprinting

So, now that we understand the general background of how the internet came to be, as well as why we have VPNs today, we can discuss browser fingerprinting. Websites in the past were much more primitive and one-sided than today -where websites are huge, complex and multifaceted machines. What this complexity and, essentially evolution, of the website has brought with it is totally new parameters. 

Browser fingerprinting can be defined as a diagnostic that is part of modern browsers. For example, the Brave browser implements this feature. Brave also implements ‘do not track’, social media blocking and more features that most modern browsers today include.

Fingerprinting (or sometimes called footprinting) is a digital representation of the system that you are using, that your browser tells to the website you are visiting. Browser fingerprinting is hardly known by people, as it is a function usually deep in the settings menu which most people do not delve into. 

Which Data Does Browser Fingerprinting Collect?

  • Installed browser plug-ins
  • JavaScript parameters
  • Your IP
  • Browser commands
  • Information about different browsers you are using
  • Operating system and system diagnostics
  • Browsing history
  • Information about your preferences on cookies

Is Browser Fingerprinting combined with a VPN A Good Recipe For Anonymity?

Above, you have seen what kind of data browser’s collect, and how much information is actually leaked to websites. Now, how do we remedy the problem, if at all possible? There are a few ways to ensure that you are as anonymous as possible. One of these ways involves tweaking/adjusting your browser settings (which most people have never heard of), and the other is using a VPN. An ideal combination would be to combine both. 

Some Adjustments to Make

  • Setting a different language on your browser
  • Remove plug-ins you do not need
  • Disabling WebGL, Javascript and Flash
  • Using Tor browser
  • Disabling WebRTC on your system
  • Using a VPN
  • Using open-source browsers geared towards privacy and security
  • Combining all of the above with a VPN

Once you have checked off the steps mentioned above in browser fingerprinting, and the  adjustments list, you can take the final step and confirm that your system is now more secure. Do this by visiting websites such as WHOER, which will run a safety diagnostic and will inform you of further steps you need to take to ensure true anonymity.

The Future of Anonymity on The World Wide Web

The future of anonymity on the internet looks hopeful, at least in the sense that we are thinking a lot more about privacy and cybersecurity nowadays. However, we are yet to see whether any more laws will be implemented to make the internet a better place. Information is growing ever closer to the consumer, and business should be responsible and aware of customer rights and corporate responsibility.

We all deserve proper privacy rights and anonymity online, as well as the guarantee that our data is protected. At least, this is true for individuals. For businesses, there are rules to which they still must comply and there are other issues such as lobbying from advertisers and the agitation within the tech industry aimed at privacy laws such as GDPR (EU) and CCPA (USA). 

Author Bio : David Janssen is the founder and managing director of the Internet Privacy Initiative. With an international team of privacy advocates and cybersecurity researchers, he runs a range of cybersecurity websites and strives to make technical topics accessible and understandable for the common man.

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