Companies begin looking at "digital fingerprints" harvesting

A man has dcided that collecting the digital equivalent of fingerprints from every computer, mobile and TV set-top box in the world, will be the new way for advertisers to target us.

David Norris, who has been described as “an idiot” by privacy organisations, has started up a business, BlueCava. It has so far identified 200 million devices, but it expects this number to grow to one billion by the end of next year.  According to the WSJ, Mr Norris is building a “credit bureau for devices” in which every computer or mobile will have a “reputation” based on its user’s online behaviour, shopping habits and demographics.

He plans to sell this information to advertisers who want to know all about people’s interests and activities in order to target ads.

According to him advertisers no longer want to just buy ads, they want to buy access to specific people.

Device fingerprinting is a powerful emerging tool in this trade. It’s “the next generation of online advertising,” Mr. Norris said.

The system works by looking at the way people use and set up their computers. Mr Norris believes that each has a different clock setting, different fonts, different software and many other characteristics that make it unique.  

He says every time a computer goes online, it broadcasts hundreds of such details and tracking companies can use this data to uniquely identify computers, mobiles and other devices, and then build profiles of the people who use them.

Until recently, fingerprinting was used mainly to prevent illegal copying of computer software or to stop credit-card fraud. BlueCava’s technology is based on the workings of an inventor who, in the early 1990s, wanted to protect the software he used to program music keyboards for the Australian pop band INXS.

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, which can be deleted.

Mr Norris thinks he’ll get interest from companies, who are looking at ways to target us now that online tracking has come under scrutiny from the government.

And if you thought you’d be able to dodge this then think again. According to the WSJ this technology is tough even for sophisticated web users to detect. Even if people modify their machines—adding or deleting fonts, or updating software—fingerprinters often can still recognise them. There’s not yet a way for people to delete fingerprints that have been collected.

Although Big Brother Watch has called the idea “absurd”, device fingerprinting is legal and a few more companies are also jumping on this money making bandwagon.
Iovation, for example,  says it is exploring the use of device profiles to help websites customise their content.

BlueCava says the information it collects about devices can’t be traced back to individuals and that it will offer people a way to opt out of being tracked.

However, it says it still needs to figure out how to alert people their devices are being fingerprinted. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re just going to try to be really clear” about how the data is used, he said.

Alex Deane director at Big Brother Watch however, isn’t keen on the idea, describing it as “creepy.

He told Techeye: “Even in an era of facial recognition technology now available on i-Phones, this computer “fingerprinting” has to rank as one of the creepiest developments going.

 “Freedom on the internet is cherished by billions of users. This idiot is singlehandedly making it much easier to monitor and control what we do online. We should be trying to encourage China to be like the rest of us online – not beavering away at arrangements which will make the rest of us like China.”

Mr Norris doesn’t agree. He says that collecting that data is “standard practice” in the online-ad business.
Later this year, BlueCava plans to launch its reputation exchange, which will include all the fingerprints it has collected so far.It also plans to link the profiles of various devices, such as mobiles, that also appear to be used by the same person.

And it wants to go another step further by matching online data about people with catalogues of offline information about them, such as property records, motor-vehicle registrations, income estimates and other details. It works by tracking user’s behaviour on websites using a name or email address. The website then shares those details with an offline-data company, which uses the email address or name to look up its files about the person.

Big Brother is watching you indeed.