Can’t say we’re surprised
If you use any type of electronic device, you know you’re more than likely being tracked. Marketers, researchers, and software designers all rely on device data to push their products, make them more effective, or create entirely new products.
While some tracking can be helpful, other types of tracking can be downright creepy. Browsers have had to add the ability to hide your web searches, block ads, and generally give the “abracadabra” over anything you do online. However, a new study by Princeton suggests that your tracks may not be fully covered.
Audio fingerprinting – what is it?
According to the Consumerist, the new study by Princeton University (PDF) found that in addition to all the searches, data, images, and other footprints you leave online, there is another trail of information lurking inside your computer in the form of audio fingerprinting. It doesn’t track all your audio; instead of tracking what you do, it tracks what you use.
When your computer is running, it makes its own innate sounds; not the startup sounds, or music you play, but rather, the sounds of the technology doing its magic.
You can’t hear it, but it’s there at the electron level.
How do they track it if you can’t hear it?
That’s a good question. The answer is while you may not be able to hear it, software programs can “hear” it and distinguish all those little noises.
When someone wants to track what you use, they add a unique sound to the hum of those electrons. According to the Consumerist, in order to track you by audio fingerprint, a script code checks for the existence of the additional noises mentioned above and then adds a little extra information to create your unique fingerprint.
The Princeton researchers state: “In the simplest case, a script from the company LiveRail checks for the existence of an AudioContext and OscillatorNode to add a single bit of information to a broader fingerprint. More sophisticated scripts process an audio signal generated with an OscillatorNode to fingerprint the device.
This technique appears conceptually similar to that of canvas fingerprinting. Audio signals processed on different machines or browsers may have slight differences due to hardware or software differences between the machines, while the same combination of machine and browser will produce the same output.”
Why this matters
In essence, these fingerprints are capable of communicating basic information as well as more complex data transfers.
While this is not a widespread practice, as the Princeton researchers emphasize vehemently, it is still something consumers should know about.
If it’s a rarity, why worry about it?
As the Consumerist points out, LiveRail, the company that checks for the existence of audio code is a Facebook company. This means if they wanted to dive deeper into using this technique, they certainly have the ability to do so. While it’s certainly not panic-worthy, it is something to keep in mind. If you’d like to see a visualization of how they audio fingerprint works, they’ve set up a site for live demonstration, here.