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Does Browser Fingerprinting Spell the End for Third-Party Cookies?

Posted 3rd March 2022
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2022 is the year when we will witness the cookie crumble with the end of Third-Party Cookies. And, potentially, the start of Browser Fingerprinting.

Google is following Safari and Firefox by accepting their users’ desire for privacy with the cookies that currently track users’ behaviour across the web set to be retired.

The details of Google’s proposed alternatives to third-party cookies are still to be announced. They’re widely predicted to put consumer’s privacy needs front and foremost and the data available to paying advertisers less detailed.

What does this mean for marketers

For those who rely on third-party cookies to create audiences for ad targeting, these restrictions are forcing marketers to look for alternative ways of collecting data. One alternative growing in popularity is Browser Fingerprinting.

What is Browser Fingerprinting?

Browser Fingerprinting is a tracking method that uses a website’s JavaScript code to collect information about you and your device. The type of browser you’re using, your operating system, active plugins, your location, language and other user settings.

Doesn’t sound that exciting? Yes, it doesn’t seem to give quite the detailed data that is currently available through Third Party Cookies. The secret is in the fact that it’s estimated that only 1 in 286,777 other browsers will share the same Browser Fingerprint as another user (Panopticlick).

This fact turns what sounds like fairly generic information into something a lot more unique. Therefore, more useful for targeting purposes.

How does Browser Fingerprinting work?

The clue is in the name! Like the fingerprinting databases held for criminal investigations, websites collect huge amounts of visitor data and then match that against the unique browser fingerprints of known users.

Browser Fingerprints are collected with the help of the following techniques. They allow websites to identify individuals with an extremely high degree of accuracy.

  • Canvas fingerprinting. Canvas fingerprinting is widely used and uses the HTML5 canvas element to get your browser to draw an image or some text. This occurs invisibly in the background, say when the page loads, and you won’t see it happening. The way your browser renders the image/text provides detailed information about your font style, graphics card, drivers, web browser, and operating system.
  • WebGL fingerprinting and rendering fingerprinting. Like canvas fingerprinting, these two techniques force your browser to render images off-screen. Then use these images to supply information about your device’s hardware and graphics setup.
  • Device fingerprinting. Device fingerprinting refers to a technique that uncovers a list of all the media devices (including their IDs) on your computer. That includes internal media components such as your video and audio card, as well as any connected devices like headphones.
  • Audio fingerprinting: Rather than forcing your browser to render an image, audio fingerprinting tests the way your device plays sound. The resulting sound waves provide information on your device’s audio setup including its drivers, sound hardware, and software.

In reality, none of these methods provides such specifics as name and home address! But, it will uniquely identify users in order to target them with advertising – as cookies do.

Can users prevent this tracking?

No, unlike cookies, web users cannot activate any privacy settings to prevent this from happening it also can’t be blocked by ad blockers. Browsing Fingerprinting collects information and stores it server-side as opposed to client-side. This means that any web activity doesn’t actually load anything on the users’ device so put simply, what’s not there can’t be deleted.

There’s one other big positive to this form of data collection

Brower Fingerprinting can track activity over multiple devices. Websites can track a user’s activity across their laptop, tablet and mobile. Meaning they can create a highly detailed and accurate picture of an individual’s browsing activity.

Is Browser Fingerprinting a realistic alternative to third-party cookies?

Yes, Third-Party Cookies are certainly not the only successful way to track website activity. So, marketers need not fear the advent of a cookie-less world.

Browser fingerprints are almost exclusively unique to each web user, they can foil privacy and anti-tracking software and can’t be deleted by the device user.

These benefits alone make them a data collection tool that marketers should consider adding to their arsenal as the availability of tracking data from cookies declines.

Read more in our blog Are you ready for a Third-Party Cookie-less world?

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