Privacy

'Fingerprinting' tool challenges privacy safeguards for federal websites

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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. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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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.

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