A new study conducted by Princeton and Stanford research teams has revealed a worrying web browser practice. The study suggests it is actually easy for web browsers to track who a user is, allowing for targeted ads and a lack of anonymity.

Collecting web browser data when users visit websites is not uncommon. Indeed, third parties log website visits and make a digital record. With these records, advertisers can create ads that are tailored to interests. For content providers, the data can be used to make sure website content suits the audience.

To maintain user privacy, the data collected is anonymized. This means the specific user data is anonymous to prevent advertisers from targeting ads because they know who a visitor is. The idea is they should target ads to an anonymous user, without knowing who the user is.

Improving Accuracy

If more data (social media links) is gathered, the odds of linking it to anonymous web browser activity increases.

For example, the team says it had a 70% success rate over a test scenario of 374 volunteers. These people willingly handed over their browsing data to the study.

“Users may assume they are anonymous when they are browsing a news or a health website, but our work adds to the list of ways in which tracking companies may be able to learn their identities,” said ¬†Arvnid Narayanan, an affiliated faculty member at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

This is an interesting development. It shows that while initial web browser activity may be anonymous, there are certainly ways for third parties to find out exact identities.

Yes, this is a controlled research study, but we guess advertisers are also at least working on being able to replicate similar results.