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By now most Internet users have become acquainted one of multiple browsers constructed from the basic Chromium code developed by Google in 2008.
Shortly after that Google modified that code into a proprietary browser called Chrome, and placed the original Chromium code into an open-source library available to anyone who wanted to develop their own version of Google Chrome (which is currently the most popular browser in use).
Since that time several other popular browsers based on the original Chromium code have been developed. Thus far the most popular of that group is Firefox developed by Mozilla. But rapidly approaching in popularity – and soon to overtake it – is the new Chromium based Edge by Microsoft released in January of this year. This is not to be confused with the original Edge that shipped as the original browser in Windows 10.
However, there is becoming a concern among computer users that have an interest in computing security that the Chromium based browsers may allow browsing history to identify the individual user of any particular computer.
This is because of all the websites and social platforms that gather user data and construct profiles on users for profit. If websites and platforms can develop profiles based on what a user browses to, can that information also be used to identify an individual user based on that same collected data? Especially since most of the browsers in use today are based on the same Chromium code.
According to a new study by Mozilla, there is a very high probability that any individual Internet user can be identified by analyzing the browsing history alone.
The results of that study called, “Replication: Why We Still Can’t Browse in Peace: On the Uniqueness and Re-identifiability of Web Browsing Histories” was presented at the USENIX security conference last month.
Last year, Mozilla asked Firefox users to participate in an experiment to find out how effective the browsing history is in identifying users on the Internet. The collected data resembles the data that third-parties collect through various tracking mechanisms on the Internet.
About 52,000 Firefox users agreed to participate in the study which ran over the course of two weeks. Users would share the browsing history in the first week and in the second, and Mozilla would analyze the data to find out if the first week data could be used to identify users based on the second week data.
The researchers managed to identify nearly 49,000 “distinct browsing profiles” and discovered that 99% were unique.
50% of users could be identified using the top 10,000 websites if the users visited at least 50 distinct websites in the period. If users visited 150 or more sites, the probability of identification increased to 80% using the top 10,000 websites as the data pool.
The data confirms a study from 2012 which used a different way of gathering the data. Back then, researchers set up a test site and used CSS code to identify sites from a 6000 domains list to find out which of these sites users had visited. The 2012 study concluded that 97% of visitors had a unique list of sites based on the 6000 domains list, and that the data alone could be used to track users across the web.
Mozilla’s data was more accurate because it received the entire browsing history of users who participate in the studies.
The study confirms that third-parties may use the browsing history to create user profiles and track individual users across the Internet based a user’s browsing history.
Facebook and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, observe large portions of the web based on the analysis of third-party scripts in the browsing data. Alphabet access (Google) was found on 9823 of the top 10,000 websites, Facebook access on 7348 sites. “Numerous companies” with access in the 2000-5000 range of the top 10,000 sites were also detected.
The researchers recommend that users enable privacy protections in their browser of choice to reduce the tracking capabilities of these companies. Disabling or limiting third-party cookies, using Containers ( unique to New Edge and Firefox), modifying default privacy settings, deleting data regularly, and installing privacy extensions may limit a company’s ability to identify a user based on the browsing profile but these methods may not eliminate the thread entirely.
Below are the eight most popular Chromium-based browsers listed according to year of development (or conversion from a different code to Chromium) and not based on total user numbers:
- Un-Googled Chromium code – 2008
- Google Chrome – 2008
- Opera – 2013
- Iron – 2015
- Vivaldi – 2016
- Brave – 2017
- Epic – 2019
- Microsoft Edge – 2020
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