This technology has been in development in one form or another for a long time. And in fact I wrote an article about similar computer finger printing issues back in April for my blog which you can read here http://ht.ly/3hXSF Currently MS uses it to tie your OS to your computer by matching various hardware id numbers and other unique identifiers to prevent you from copying or using your copy of windows on more than one machine. Change too much hardware on your computer and your OS will stop be recognized as an authorized copy. The scheme discussed in this article is similar just based more on software identifiers. The problem with this kind of id'ing is that you can't hide from it and you have no way to monitor for it's presence. There is no question that it's being used right now and we don't know how much or by whom. I would bet the government for example is heavily into this type of id'ing. For it is almost impossible to stop and even harder to detect once a systems been id'ed. So like it or not, make it illegal or not, it's going to be with us for a long time and it provides a new and troubling tool for the trackers among us.
Race Is On to 'Fingerprint' Phones, PCs
IRVINE, Calif.—David Norris wants to collect the digital equivalent of fingerprints from every computer, cellphone and TV set-top box in the world.
He's off to a good start. So far, Mr. Norris's start-up company, BlueCava Inc., has identified 200 million devices. By the end of next year, BlueCava says it expects to have cataloged one billion of the world's estimated 10 billion devices.
Advertisers no longer want to just buy ads. They want to buy access to specific people. So, Mr. Norris is building a "credit bureau for devices" in which every computer or cellphone will have a "reputation" based on its user's online behavior, shopping habits and demographics. He plans to sell this information to advertisers willing to pay top dollar for granular data about people's interests and activities.
Device fingerprinting is a powerful emerging tool in this trade. It's "the next generation of online advertising," Mr. Norris says.
Until recently, fingerprinting was used mainly to prevent illegal copying of computer software or to thwart credit-card fraud. BlueCava's own fingerprinting technology traces its unlikely roots to 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," tiny text files on a computer that can be deleted.
As controversy grows over intrusive online tracking, regulators are looking to rein it in. This week, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to release a privacy report calling for a "do-not-track" tool for Web browsers.
Ad companies are constantly looking for new techniques to heighten their surveillance of Internet users.
Deep packet inspection, a potentially intrusive method for peering closely into the digital traffic that moves between people's computers and the broader Internet, is being tested in the U.S. and Brazil as a future means to deliver targeted advertising.
Akamai Technologies Inc., an Internet-infrastructure giant that says it delivers 15% to 30% of all Web traffic, is marketing a technique to track people's online movements in more detail than traditional tools easily can.
How to 'Fingerprint' a Computer
A typical computer broadcasts hundreds of details about itself when a Web browser connects to the Internet. Companies tracking people online can use those details to 'fingerprint' browsers and follow their users.
Device fingerprinting is legal. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D.,Ill.), proposed legislation in July that would require companies that use persistent identifiers, such as device fingerprints, to let people opt out of being tracked online.
Fingerprinting companies are racing to meet the $23 billion U.S. online-ad industry's appetite for detailed consumer behavior. Previously, the companies focused on using device fingerprints to prevent software theft or to identify computers making fraudulent transactions, in hopes of preventing future attempts.
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.
Still, Mr. Norris says it's tough 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 says.
Steel House offers people a way to opt out of its current cookie-based ads and says it would do the same if it adopts fingerprints. "I definitely don't want to be in the sights of the privacy people," Mr. Douglas says.
Computers need to broadcast details about their configuration in order to interact smoothly with websites and with other computers. For example, computers announce which specific Web browsers they use, along with their screen resolution, to help websites display correctly.
BlueCava embeds its technology in websites, downloadable games and cellphone apps. One of its first customers was Palo Alto, Calif.-based IMVU Inc., which operates an online game where 55 million registered players can build virtual identities and chat in 3-D. It wanted to combat fraudsters who were setting up multiple accounts to buy virtual clothing and trinkets with stolen credit-card numbers. Kevin Dasch, a vice president at IMVU, says BlueCava's technology "has led to a significant decline in our fraud rates."
Unlike most other fraud-prevention companies, BlueCava plans to merge its fraud data with its advertising data. Rivals say they don't mix the two types of data.
The idea behind BlueCava's exchange is to let advertisers build profiles of the people using the devices it has identified. For instance, BlueCava will know that an IMVU fingerprint is from someone who likes virtual-reality games.
Advertisers are starting to test BlueCava's system. Mobext, the U.S. cellphone-advertising unit of the French firm Havas SA, is evaluating BlueCava's technology as a way to target users on mobile devices. "It's a better level of tracking," says Rob Griffin, senior vice president at Havas Digital.
Read more at www.wallstreetjournal.com