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6 October, 2009

Where have you been?

According to a trawl through my office PC's browser history by 'WhatTheInternetKnowsAboutYou', I've visited 19 of the 5,000 most popular websites and 50 of the top 20,000.

Those are surprisingly large numbers – I hadn't realised that some of my favourite webcomics are so popular, nor that I'd ever visited such sites as Xinhuanet.com.

It also reminds me which popular Twitter profiles I've visited and which specific news articles I've accessed at the Guardian, The Register and BoingBoing.

I haven't visited any p*rn, banking or dating sites, apparently, but I knew that already, not least because this is my employer's PC and network connection.


Wait; how could a remote website even access my browser history?
It's elegantly simple: the testing pages include non-visible links to the websites of interest, then log whether my browser responds by 'rendering' them as visited links.

And any website could do the same. This demonstration investigates usage of general-interest sites, simply to illustrate the technique, but others could target specific, more personally-sensitive sites.

Solutions? Well, four that wouldn't work are disabling Flash, Java, JavaScript or cookies, as the browser sniffing can operate using CSS alone. To repeat: disabling JavaScript DOES NOT work.
Those which do work are:

  • Disabling one's browser history.
  • Disabling CSS styling of visited links. This is only straightforward in Firefox.
  • Installing a browser extension. HistoryBlock looks suitable.
With the exception of HistoryBlock, which I've just installed, all three options could diminish one's normal online experience, so I've tended to favour a variant of the first: my browser history is enabled, but regularly cleared.

And another thing: never perform a Google search for your own name....

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