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How Digital Fingerprinting Works


Legality
Google Ads offers advertisers services that tailor offers to individual users. It's a powerful marketing tool, but is it an invasion of privacy?
Google Ads offers advertisers services that tailor offers to individual users. It's a powerful marketing tool, but is it an invasion of privacy?
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com staff

As you've probably figured out by this point, digital fingerprinting can be a powerful -- perhaps even invasive -- technology. Do you like the thought of your every online move being tracked, even if it's only for the purpose of targeted advertising? Here's a better question: Is it even legal?

Identity tracking fingerprinting treads on shaky ethical ground that may be deemed overly invasive and unlawful in the future. But because it's a developing technology, those legal issues are still being sorted out. And with the Internet being a global network, laws regarding digital fingerprinting may develop completely differently from one country to another.

According to Canada's guidelines, a digital fingerprint likely constitutes personal information, so usage of that information could be in violation of Canadian privacy laws. Canadian organizations are required to exhaust every possible noninvasive method of personal identification before resorting to methods like fingerprinting. Because fingerprinting "may collect more information than is necessary to identify fraudulent and duplicate respondents in online research," Canadian organizations could get in trouble for tracking people unless they've received permission or exhausted all other opportunities [source: Verrinder].

The first form of digital fingerprinting we covered -- matching identifying characteristics of copyrighted media to a database -- doesn't suffer from the same ethical challenges as identity tracking. License holders have the right to protect their content, and nothing about this form of fingerprinting invades the user's privacy. Ideally, fingerprinting will actually decrease the number of copyright infringement lawsuits by stopping the illegal dissemination of licensed media. Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube was thrown out of court in 2010 because Google was found to be in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Because the site took down illegal videos when notified, it was protected under the DMCA and wasn't held liable for the actions of its users [source: Schonfeld]. With better fingerprinting technology, the lawsuit may never have arisen at all. That statement puts a lot of faith into fingerprinting technology, bringing us to our last topic: How well does it really work?


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