Privacy

'Fingerprinting' tool challenges privacy safeguards for federal websites

gloved hands

A recently discovered tool for tracking computer identities could threaten the privacy of visitors to thousands of popular websites, including dozens of federal sites.

"Canvas fingerprinting" is a new form of browser tracking that, as of early May, researchers from Princeton University and Belgium's KU Leuven University estimate had affected 5 percent of the world's 100,000 most popular websites. The tracking mechanism uses a web browser's application programming interface (API) to "draw invisible images and extract a persistent, long-term fingerprint without the user's knowledge," the researchers wrote in the draft of a forthcoming paper. The online news site Mashable reported on the research July 21.

Affected agency websites

In a scan of the 100,000 most popular websites, researches found more than 5,000 included the AddThis "canvas fingerprinting code" -- including the following federal agency sites:

  • ahrq.gov
  • aids.gov
  • archives.gov
  • cbp.gov
  • commerce.gov
  • dhs.gov
  • eia.gov
  • fueleconomy.gov
  • globalentry.gov
  • gpo.gov
  • healthfinder.gov
  • hud.gov
  • lanl.gov
  • noaa.gov
  • osha.gov
  • peacecorps.gov
  • ready.gov
  • samhsa.gov
  • socialsecurity.gov
  • ssa.gov
  • state.gov
  • tsa.gov
  • usaid.gov
  • uscis.gov
  • whitehouse.gov
  • womenshealth.gov

The tracking tool has latched onto the websites of the departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, the White House and the Social Security Administration, among several other federal sites.

An online widget developer called AddThis wrote most of the fingerprinting code that appears on the affected websites. AddThis CEO Rich Harris told Mashable that his firm is exploring canvas fingerprinting as an alternative to "cookies," the more common user-tracking tool.

The difficulty of maintaining user anonymity in the face of canvas fingerprinting poses a challenge to government websites trying to adhere to privacy standards set by the Office of Management and Budget.

Affected agencies have been working to address privacy concerns since last month's revelation of canvas fingerprinting and its inclusion in the AddThis code. Most agencies contacted for comment by FCW deferred to the White House, which, as of this writing, had yet to respond. [UPDATE: A White House spokesman contacted FCW on Aug. 5 to say that the canvas fingerprinting code had been removed from WhiteHouse.gov.]

The Transportation Security Administration, a component of DHS, said it planned to remove the AddThis widget from its website Aug. 5. "The canvas fingerprinting was implemented via the 'AddThis' capability as an inherent feature unbeknownst to TSA. TSA was not using the canvas fingerprinting capability," the agency said in a statement to FCW.

Though the General Services Administration's website was not one of those listed by researchers as affected by canvas fingerprinting, an agency spokeswoman said GSA had negotiated its terms of service with AddThis years ago and was reviewing the matter.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Follow him on Twitter: @snlyngaas

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Wed, Aug 6, 2014 RayW

I see a few Gov sites listed as using this "tool", but what about this and variations thereof used by other countries and less savory people/entities? Since it is stealthy and also identifies you, then it probably has the ability to be modified to pick up more data in the process that you may not want to have others see, all hidden from you.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above