Return to blog
Posted on January 4, 2017

The Evolution of Privacy Software

Over the past twenty years, the technology used to track users has changed drastically. By contrast, privacy software products designed to protect consumers against online tracking have remained largely unchanged. Let’s explore the history of online tracking and the rapid evolution that privacy software needs to undergo to catch up.

Tracking has always relied on cookies. Cookies are files placed on your computer while you browse that allow you, for example, to auto-populate forms, etc. These files can hold many types of data, but almost always contain what is known as a unique identifier. This unique identifier is exactly what it sounds like—a way to uniquely identify a specific computer user. If a user can consistently be uniquely identified when visiting a website, that website can maintain a log of what pages he or she visited, in what sequence, and for how long.

As websites became more complex, so did the use of cookies to track users. Now, cookies can be read from and written to by third parties—for instance, advertising and analytics companies or via widgets (think Facebook Like and Twitter Share buttons) that are displayed on webpages. The main difference with these “third party cookies” is they can be used on a wide range of websites, and by sharing information, can glean much more browsing data about a user by tracking him or her across multiple websites. This is known as cross-domain tracking.

First generation privacy software was designed to remove or block cookies stored on your computer. As more and more users began to utilize this type of privacy software or manually delete cookies, tracking companies needed to find another method to track users. Thus, they invented “digital fingerprinting.”

Digital fingerprinting works by gathering every available piece of data about a user’s computer during the website loading process. This includes data about the operating system, web browser, time zone, and screen size, among others. When all of these data points are gathered and analyzed they can, with a 95% degree of accuracy, uniquely identify a computer system, and in turn a user. This type of tracking is extremely effective because, unlike cookies, a user can’t simply “delete” his or her computer’s digital fingerprint.

Today, much of the privacy software on the market is still focused on cookies, and deleting files that are stored locally on your computer. This may reduce the risks presented by tracking companies still using cookies, or from someone who is physically sitting at your computer, but it does nothing to hinder the efforts of companies tracking you via your digital fingerprint. Some folks have also begun using VPN (Virtual Private Network) software to enhance their privacy. This will mask your IP address from websites, but does not prevent tracking via cookies or your digital fingerprint.

What is truly needed is a layered approach to internet privacy. Users need to routinely delete cookies from their computers and protect their digital fingerprints. Currently, TrackOFF is the only software that will shield digital fingerprints from collection. It also has a one-click cookie clearing functionality, so you can clear your cookies (including new, advanced forms of cookies) and other sensitive data effortlessly.

— Ryan Flach
Co-founder, TrackOFF
[email protected]