Stealth Searching: Three Ways to Erase Your Digital Fingerprint

Last year, 23-year-old Tiffany Ferguson of Nashville, Tennessee, was murdered by a homeless man named Chris D. McLawhorn.

According to police, McLawhorn was walking through the neighborhood checking for unlocked doors when he gained access to the victim’s home.

After the crime occurred, police located the victim’s laptop as well as other belongings of hers near a railroad track frequented by homeless people.

Surveillance footage obtained by police led them to a suspect identified by other residents in the area as McLawhorn.

Self-Incriminating Searches

Once the suspect was in custody, police discovered that just hours after the crime was committed, the suspect’s cellphone was used to conduct internet searches on how police use fingerprints to identify suspects.

The suspect also searched “can rain wash off fingerprints” and “just how incriminating is a fingerprint really.” Obviously, police and prosecutors will use this digital forensics evidence to make sure this guy is punished for his heinous crime.

The truth is not only can law enforcement use digital forensics to solve crimes, but many online companies also use the same information to track your browsing habits. In fact, most websites these days develop a “browser fingerprint” containing information about a particular user.

The term “browser fingerprint” means that when you connect to a website from your computer, tablet or smartphone, your device shares with that website specific data about the other websites you visit.

But that’s not all…

Deep Data Mining

Websites also collect data from your device such as the browser type and version, operating system, active plug-ins, time zone, language, screen resolution and other basic settings.

Here’s how it works: When you visit a website, the website embeds what’s called a “cookie” in your computer’s hard drive. Cookies are small files designed to store data collected during each session. The next time you visit that website, it recognizes the cookie and downloads the information about your browsing habits.

Another method used by websites to collect your information that doesn’t involve loading anything onto your hard drive is called “canvas fingerprinting.” This means that websites are built with a specific line of code that automatically collects your data as soon as you visit the site.

The scary thing is you can’t just delete this information from your browser like you can with cookies, so it’s becoming a more common way for websites to track users’ habits.

Now, you’re probably thinking, Who really cares what websites I visit? Well, everyone who can make money off of your personal data, that’s who.

This is why I highly recommend following these three steps to ensure you share as little data as possible with advertisers.

  1. Download plug-ins. Most standard browsers allow you to download plug-ins that give you the option to disable trackers. A couple of the plug-ins I recommend are AdBlock Plus and NoScript. These are designed to block scripts that enable invisible tracking in your browser. Some plug-ins can prevent certain websites from loading properly. If you are visiting a website you trust, simply disable the plug-in for that specific website.
  1. Turn on incognito mode. Browsers such as Chrome, Safari and Firefox allow users to enable something called “incognito mode.” In this mode, your browser settings default to a basic security standard. Since so many people use these settings, it’s difficult for websites to differentiate you from another user. Basically, you appear to have the same settings as thousands of other people, which makes it harder to track you.
  1. Use a secure browser. One of the best ways to keep your information safe while browsing the internet is to use a more secure browser, instead of ones such as Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Tor, for example, is a leader in the tech world for keeping your information private. Tor Browser uses a platform similar to Firefox. It’s free and open source for Windows, iOS, Linux/Unix and Android. The downside is Tor sometimes slows down your internet speed. However, it’s one of the most secure ways to browse the internet.

It’s unfortunate, but the burden of protecting your personal information — including your browsing data — rests squarely on your shoulders. By following these simple steps, you will be much harder for websites to track (and for advertisers to peg), so you can browse the internet in peace.

Stay safe,

Jason Hanson

Jason Hanson

Chris Campbell

Written By Jason Hanson

Jason Hanson is a former CIA officer and security specialist. He’s appeared on numerous television shows, including ABC’s Shark Tank and NBC’s Today show. To get free survival tips from Jason, click here.