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Fingerprinting the digital world



David Norris wants to collect the digital equivalent of fingerprints from every computer, cellphone and TV set-top box in the world…Norris’s start-up company, BlueCava Inc., has identified 200 million devices…Advertisers no longer want to just buy ads. They want to buy access to specific people. So, Mr. Norris is building a “credit bureau for devices” in which every computer or cellphone will have a “reputation” based on its user’s online behavior, shopping habits and demographics. He plans to sell this information to advertisers willing to pay top dollar for granular data about people’s interests and activities…Each has a different clock setting, different fonts, different software and many other characteristics that make it unique.  Every time a typical computer goes online, it broadcasts hundreds of such details as a calling card to other computers it communicates with. Tracking companies can use this data to uniquely identify computers, cellphones and other devices, and then build profiles of the people who use them…Tracking companies are now embracing fingerprinting partly because it is much tougher to block than other common tools used to monitor people online, such as browser “cookies,” tiny text files on a computer that can be deleted…Federal Trade Commission is expected to release a privacy report calling for a “do-not-track” tool for Web browsers…Deep packet inspection, a potentially intrusive method for peering closely into the digital traffic that moves between people’s computers and the broader Internet, is being tested in the U.S. and Brazil as a future means to deliver targeted advertising…Akamai Technologies Inc., an Internet-infrastructure giant that says it delivers 15% to 30% of all Web traffic, is marketing a technique to track people’s online movements in more detail than traditional tools easily can…There’s not yet a way for people to delete fingerprints that have been collected. In short, fingerprinting is largely invisible, tough to fend off and semi-permanent….typical computer broadcasts hundreds of details about itself when a Web browser connects to the Internet. Companies tracking people online can use those details to ‘fingerprint’ browsers and follow their users…Device fingerprinting is legal. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D.,Ill.), proposed legislation in July that would require companies that use persistent identifiers, such as device fingerprints, to let people opt out of being tracked online…companies are racing to meet the $23 billion U.S. online-ad industry’s appetite for detailed consumer behavior…Another anti-fraud company, iovation Inc. of Portland, Ore., says it is exploring the use of device profiles to help websites customize their content….BlueCava says it doesn’t collect personal information such as people’s names. Its privacy policy says it gathers “just boring stuff that most people couldn’t care less about.”… using fingerprinting to track devices is “fair game” because websites automatically get the data anyway…41st Parameter found it could generate a fingerprint about 89% of the time. By comparison, Steel House was able to use cookies for tracking on only about 78% of visits, because some people blocked or deleted cookies…Our intent is that it can completely replace the use of cookies…Computers need to broadcast details about their configuration in order to interact smoothly with websites and with other computers. For example, computers announce which specific Web browsers they use, along with their screen resolution, to help websites display correctly….There are hundreds of parameters. “We call them the ‘toys on the table,'”…first customers was Palo Alto, Calif.-based IMVU Inc., which operates an online game where 55 million registered players can build virtual identities and chat in 3-D. It wanted to combat fraudsters who were setting up multiple accounts to buy virtual clothing and trinkets with stolen credit-card numbers…Mr. Dasch of IMVU says he doesn’t mind fingerprints of IMVU customers being added to the exchange, provided that they don’t contain personally identifiable information such as user names, and that his company can use other exchange data in return…idea behind BlueCava’s exchange is to let advertisers build profiles of the people using the devices it has identified…Blue Cava also is seeking to use a controversial technique of matching online data about people with catalogs of offline information about them, such as property records, motor-vehicle registrations, income estimates and other details…”I think cookies are a joke,” Mr. Norris says. “The system is archaic and was invented by accident. We’ve outgrown it, and it’s time for the next thing.”…


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