Friday, December 3, 2010

Do Your Computer, Phone and TV Fingerprints Leave You At Risk?

10 Billion - That's the estimated number of computers, phones, and TV set boxes around the world.  Advertisers want to know what these devices, and the users behind them, are doing so they can sell, sell, sell.

Consumers are becoming more aware of cookies and internet mailing lists and have been taking steps to protect themselves from being profiled by advertisers.  A way around user controls is to use a technology known as device fingerprinting.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is working on a privacy policy to protect consumers and has hinted it will include a "do-not-track" mandate as part of the policy similar to the "do not call" list for telemarketers.

According to the Wall Street Journal's article, BlueCava, Inc. has used device fingerprinting to catalog 200 million devices and they have a big hairy audacious goal to catalog 1 billion by next year.

How Fingerprinting Works:
1.  When your phone, TV box, or computer turns on, items such as the clock, software, screen size, web browser, and what the device talks to makes it unique.
2.  Tracking companies use the digital behavior to create a profile of the device.
3.  Based on what the device broadcasts, and where it goes, the fingerprinting company builds a profile about the user behind the device.
4.  Once the device is fingerprinted, it is assigned an ID number that can be used for tracking

What Can You Do About It?
For now, very little.  You can try to throw of fingerprinting by frequently changing settings on your computer that may be very annoying to you and might not be effective in throwing off fingerprinting.

Is Fingerprinting Bad?
It depends upon your point of view.  A very good outcome of fingerprinting is in the prevention and detection of fraud.  If your device is fingerprinted and profiled for a behavior, fraudulent transactions are easier to discern such as the sudden request to do international wire transfers of all your money around the globe when you have never done a wire transfer before.

Fingerprinting companies insist they are not matching the browsing patterns back to a specific email address or name, although the technology is available for them to build this capability.

For now,  just keep up with the debate of "do not track" and just know that you are leaving digital fingerprints behind.  Someone is watching all those Reality TV shows , I think fingerprinting says it's you!

As always, would love to hear your thoughts.  Do you like the idea of fingerprinting to avoid and detect fraud?  Do you think opting out of fingerprinting should be part of the "do-not-track" option if that becomes available?


"Race is On to 'Fingerprint' Phones, PCs", Julia Angwin and Jennifer Vallentino-DeVries, Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2010.

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