The identity of every Internet user can be easily revealed by following the fingerprints that they leave online.
This is the shock finding from two German researchers who reveal that secrets and private identities – such as someone’s sexual or porn preferences or medications they use – can easily be exposed.
The main offender turns out to be Web of Trust – a “safe surfing” plug-in.
The research, which involved setting up a fake marketing company and asking hundreds of companies to provide raw browsing data of Internet users, showed that the “anonymous” personas of millions of people could be decoded.
Some users can be easily identified by leaving a trail online, such as their Twitter username on some analytics page; for others, analyzing 10 of their visited URLs can be enough to determine their identity.
Some big companies have already been accused and taken to court by customers whose identities had been exposed.
“If Internet users do not use any security tools, such as VPNs, they should realize that when they go online, nothing that they do on the Internet will remain private,” says Marty Kamden, chief marketing officer of NordVPN. “Nobody can know when their private browsing history may be exposed and for what reason.
“That can seriously hurt their personal lives, their careers and even their physical safety – if they are, for example, a political dissident in a country with an authoritarian government.”
He adds that there are a few ways to protect one’s Internet privacy, such as avoiding any kind of plugins and browser extensions, taking note of Terms of Service that might hide intrusion of privacy, and using incognito mode.
“VPN (Virtual Private Network) can protect browsing history from ISP surveillance,” Kamden adds.
A VPN encrypts user data through a secure tunnel before accessing the Internet, protecting browsing data. The only information visible to any third party is that a user is connected to a VPN server and nothing else. All other information is encrypted by the VPN’s security protocol.