Gotcha: This is an unrecognized computer.

If you do any banking online, you’ve probably gotten that message at one time or another.

Maybe it was when you got a new computer … or, when you used a friend’s computer to pay a bill.

You probably didn’t think much of it.

You just answered the security questions and paid your bill.

Bet you didn’t stop to wonder: How did Bank of Boise know that this wasn’t my usual computer.

Well, now that I’ve aroused you curiosity, the answer is ….

You’re computer has its own distinctive “device fingerprints” that make it identifiable on the Net as your computer.

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I worry about stuff like this.  So, I’d thought about this one.

And, my thinking was wrong.

Here’s what’s going on …

I’d assumed that each computer had a serial number (they do), and that web sites just digitally extracted the serial number and filed it away someplace for verification purposes (they don’t).

It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Computers – and other devices like cell phones and digital cameras – have subtle but identifiable variations which allow them to be “fingerprinted”.

For computers, the variations are things like  browser version. installed plug-ins, screen resolution, clock setting, etc.

Turns out that relatively few of these variants are required to pin down the identification of your computer quite precisely.

One group of IT researchers concluded that only about 1 in every 300,000 computers have the same fingerprint. Source

Another team examined 70 million website visits, and found that it could generate a fingerprint about 89% of the time. Source

One tracking company claims that it has already identified and catalogued 200 million computers and other digital devices … and expects to have soon cataloged one billion of the world’s estimated 10 billion digital devices. Source

Bottom line: your computer has fingerprints that are almost as unique as your’s.

The big difference: Your fingerprints may be in law enforcement files but they aren’t catalogued in cyberspace for everybody to use to ID you … your computer’s fingerprints are … and, oh yeah, they can be traced back to you.

In subsequent posts, we’ll explore why this is a big deal …

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