Princeton University’s assistant professor of computer science Arvind Narayanan in collaboration with three Stanford University researchers released a study entitled “De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks,” to demonstrate how anonymous browsing histories are linked to social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and Twitter to supplement various operations such as targeted advertising.
Through simulation and experiments based on actual user data, the four researchers from Stanford and Princeton garnered evidence to prove that online trackers and network adversaries are able to de-anonymize web browsing data for commercial usage.
“Our approach is based on a simple observation: each person has a distinctive social network, and thus the set of links appearing in one’s feed is unique. Assuming users visit links in their feed with higher probability than a random user, browsing histories contain tell-tale marks of identity,” the paper read.
Essentially, the study proved that with simple links from Twitter, analysts would be able to accurately pinpoint social media profiles of users 50% of the time.
Achieving success in the initial simulation-based experiment, researchers then obtained web browsing histories from 400 individuals. They obtained social media links visited by the participants and began to trace down profiles of these users. Upon the completion of analysis, researchers were able to link 70% of the participants to accurate social media profiles.
In conclusion, researchers demonstrated that online trackers are embedded on websites to carry out an attack-like operation. In a more technical sense, the term “attack” is an appropriate description to use as social media platforms are obtaining information from users utilizing anonymous browsers without any prior notification or permission.
“We further show that several online trackers are embedded on su ciently many websites to carry out this attack with high accuracy. Our theoretical contribution applies to any type of transactional data and is robust to noisy observations, generalizing a wide range of previous de-anonymization attacks,” said the researchers.
These attacks can become a serious issue if social media platforms begin to obtain transactional data or financial information from users. With that, social media platforms can commercialize significantly more valuable type of information in spending habit, as advertisers can run targeted advertising on users.
As the researchers explained, Online anonymity protects civil liberties and it enables intellectual freedom. Yet, in contrast to how anonymous browsers and channels are advertised as, social media platforms are secretly obtaining personal information to monetize user data for their profit-driven operations.
“Users may assume they are anonymous when they are browsing a news or a health website, but our work adds to the list of ways in which tracking companies may be able to learn their identities,” said Narayanan.
These findings from the University of Stanford and Princeton supplement statements provided by leading developers within the cryptographic space such as Monero lead developer Riccardo Spagni.
The exposure of browser history and user information is difficult to restrict and control especially if browsers and social media platforms have a long history of extracting valuable information for profit-driving operations. The least users can do is protect their financial privacy by advocating for financial freedom and supporting the emergence of privacy-focused solutions.
Cryptocurrencies such as Monero or ZCash are viable options, as no one in the network is authorized to see the amounts or origin of transactions. When bitcoin begins to become more anonymous in the future, it will eliminate cases of financial information theft.