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Raising further questions about privacy on the internet, researchers from Princeton and Stanford universities have released a study showing that a specific person's online behavior can be identified by linking anonymous web browsing histories with social media profiles.
"We show that browsing histories can be linked to social media profiles such as Twitter, Facebook or Reddit accounts," the researchers wrote in a paper scheduled for presentation at the 2017 World Wide Web Conference Perth, Australia, in April."
"It is already known that some companies, such as Google and Facebook, track users online and know their identities," said Arvind Narayanan, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton and one of the authors of the research article.
"But those companies, which consumers choose to create accounts with, disclose their tracking.The new research shows that anyone with access to browsing histories -- a great number of companies and organizations -- can identify many users by analyzing public information from social media accounts,"Narayanan said.
"Users may assume they are anonymous when they are browsing a news or a health website, but our work adds to the list of ways in which tracking companies may be able to learn their identities," said Narayanan.
In the article, the authors note that online advertising companies build browsing histories of users with tracking programs embedded on webpages. Some advertisers attach identities to these profiles, but most promise that the web browsing information is not linked to anyone's identity.
The researchers wanted to know if it were possible to de-anonymize web browsing and identify a user even if the web browsing history did not include identities.
"Each person's browsing history is unique and contains tell-tale signs of their identity," said Sharad Goel, an assistant professor at Stanford and an author of the study."