EVERYONE FROM ADVERTISERS and marketers to government-backed hackers and spyware makers wants to identify and track users across the web. And while a staggering amount of infrastructure is already in place to do exactly that, the appetite for data and new tools to collect it has proved insatiable. With that reality in mind, researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology are warning this week about a novel technique attackers could use to de-anonymize website visitors and potentially connect the dots on many components of targets’ digital lives.
The findings, which NJIT researchers will present at the Usenix Security Symposium in Boston next month, show how an attacker who tricks someone into loading a malicious website can determine whether that visitor controls a particular public identifier, like an email address or social media account, thus linking the visitor to a piece of potentially personal data.
When you visit a website, the page can capture your IP address, but this doesn’t necessarily give the site owner enough information to individually identify you. Instead, the hack analyzes subtle features of a potential target’s browser activity to determine whether they are logged into an account for an array of services, from YouTube and Dropbox to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and more. Plus the attacks work against every major browser, including the anonymity-focused Tor Browser.
“If you’re an average internet user, you may not think too much about your privacy when you visit a random website,” says Reza Curtmola, one of the study authors and a computer science professor at NJIT. “But there are certain categories of internet users who may be more significantly impacted by this, like people who organize and participate in political protest, journalists, and people who network with fellow members of their minority group. And what makes these types of attacks dangerous is they’re very stealthy. You just visit the website and you have no idea that you’ve been exposed.”
The risk that government-backed hackers and cyber-arms dealers will attempt to de-anonymize web users isn’t just theoretical. Researchers have documented a number of techniques used in the wild and have witnessed situations in which attackers identified individual users, though it wasn’t clear how.
Other theoretical work has looked at an attack similar to the one NJIT researchers developed, but much of this past investigation has focused on grabbing revealing data that’s leaked between websites when one service makes a request to another. As a result of this prior work, browsers and website developers have improved how data is isolated and restricted when content loads, making these potential attack paths less feasible. Knowing that attackers are motivated to seek out techniques for identifying users, though, the researchers wanted to explore additional approaches.
“Let’s say you have a forum for underground extremists or activists, and a law enforcement agency has covertly taken control of it,” Curtmola says. “They want to identify the users of this forum but can’t do this directly because the users use pseudonyms. But let’s say that the agency was able to also gather a list of Facebook accounts who are suspected to be users of this forum. They would now be able to correlate whoever visits the forum with a specific Facebook identity.”