April 28, 2015

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Verizon’s tracking header: Can they do better?

Verizon’s practice of injecting a unique ID into the HTTP headers of traffic originating on their wireless network has alarmed privacy advocates and researchers. Jonathan Mayer detailed how this header is already being used by third-parties to create zombie cookies. In this post, I summarize just how much information Verizon collects and shares under their marketing programs. I’ll show how the implementation of the header makes previous tracking methods trivial and explore the possibility of a more secure design.

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How cookies can be used for global surveillance

Today we present an updated version of our paper examining how the ubiquitous use of online tracking cookies can allow an adversary conducting network surveillance to target a user or surveil users en masse. In the initial version of the study, summarized below, we examined the technical feasibility of the attack. Now we’ve made the attack model more complete and nuanced as well as analyzed the effectiveness of several browser privacy tools in preventing the attack. Finally, inspired by Jonathan Mayer and Ed Felten’s The Web is Flat study, we incorporate the geographic topology of the Internet into our measurements of simulated web traffic and our adversary model, providing a more realistic view of how effective this attack is in practice. [Read more…]

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The hidden perils of cookie syncing

[Steven Englehardt is a first-year Ph.D. student in the computer security group at Princeton. In this post he talks about the implications of a recent study that we published in collaboration with researchers at KU Leuven, Belgium. — Arvind Narayanan]

Online tracking is becoming more sophisticated and thus increasingly difficult to block. Modern browsers expose many surfaces that enable users to be uniquely identified, including Flash cookies and browser fingerprints. In a new paper that will appear at ACM CCS, we present the first large scale study of three advanced tracking mechanisms — canvas fingerprinting, evercookies, and cookie syncing. We developed novel measurement techniques and found that these tracking mechanisms are used on a large number of sites. Our findings on canvas fingerprinting, in particular, have been in the news (Propublica, BBC, EFF).

In this blog post I’ll focus on a different part of our paper that looked at cookie syncing, the process by which two different trackers link the IDs they’ve given to the same user. The most common use of cookie syncing is to enable real-time bidding between several entities in an ad auction. It allows the bidder and the ad network to refer to the user by the same ID so that the bidder can place bids on a particular user in current and future auctions. Cookie syncing raises subtle yet serious privacy concerns, but due to the technical complexity of explaining it, didn’t receive much press coverage. In this post I’ll explain cookie syncing and why it’s worrisome — even more so than canvas fingerprinting.
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