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canvas fingerprinting (CPF)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Canvas fingerprinting (CPF) is a surreptitious online user tracking technique that relies on minute differences in text or images drawn on command by users’ browsers.

Canvas fingerprinting relies on standard HTML5 and JavaScript, using a website canvas feature that one might draw on or use to display graphs and charts. On some sites, this is a visible and usable canvas. Sites that use canvas fingerprinting, however, use a hidden canvas. Commands to your graphics processing unit (GPU) cause it to draw a string of text as a pixel-based image that is almost perfectly unique and individually identifying. Even completely identical hardware systems are almost always individualized through variables such as different browsers, driver versions, font settings and text smoothing settings such as anti-aliasing.

ProPublica, an independent newsroom, claims that five percent of the top 100,000 websites use canvas fingerprinting and of those, 95 percent use AddThis.com’s product. Examples of sites using canvas fingerprinting include United States and Canadian government sites, POF.com and many others.

Methods of avoiding canvas fingerprinting include using TOR and Chameleon browsers, Adblock plus, Noscript browser extension, DoNotTrackMe and just turning off JavaScript. The unfortunate aspect of most of these solutions is that they may change ones browsing experience.

This was last updated in July 2014

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