Microsoft Developing Software That Can ID You From Your Browsing Habits

Here’s a nice thought: Microsoft is developing software that can analyze your internet habits and positively ID you. From New Scientist:

In online communities at least, entering fake details such as a bogus name or age may no longer prevent others from working out exactly who you are.

That is the spectre raised by new research conducted by Microsoft. The computing giant is developing software that could accurately guess your name, age, gender and potentially even your location, by analysing telltale patterns in your web browsing history. But experts say the idea is a clear threat to privacy – and may be illegal in some places.

Well, that’s not cool with us. —MEGHANN MARCO

New software can identify you from your online habits [New Scientist via BoingBoing]
(Photo: HeShi)

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  1. AcidReign says:

    …..I’m not sure it would track the compulsive cache-cleaners well. I toss my cookies and temporary internet files after every run through my feed reader. That, and the use of adblock plus. Of course, microsoft could just install a keylogger through Windows Update, track us all, and then deny everything when they’re caught.

  2. nidolke says:

    I’m never using the internet again.

  3. Canadian Impostor says:

    @nidolke: Interesting. The RIAA should call Microsoft to achieve their goals.

  4. Bay State Darren says:

    @AcidReign: I toss my cookies too. Especially when I’ve had too much to drink.

  5. Sunburnt says:

    Perhaps this’ll be good for we Consumerati: Frequent visits to this site, for example, will probably tag the user as “a pain in the ass about little things like customer abuse,” and that user will stop receiving unsolicited e-mails from companies whose business models are based on those practices: I’ll assume this covers about 100% of spam, +/-0%.

  6. wreckingcru says:

    Err, hate to be the Anti-MS-party pooper, but couldn’t this be used to prevent ID theft?

    Instead of a crook just having your credit card # or some other account password, some form of CLEAR deviation from your shopping habits could alert the right people and snip possible ID-related theft in the bud.

    Ex, let’s say the software is setup for Meghann. One fine day, there is a $400 leather whip purchase on her account – the software might say – “Aha! This user only shops for electronics and bedsheets online and never spends more than $200- ALERT! ALERT!”

    A very simplified example, but I think it seems feasible.

  7. hoot550 says:

    @wreckingcru:

    But what happens if she really decides at some point buy a $400 leather whip online. Then she has to explain to a call center in India that she did, in fact, intend to purchase said whip.

    Think of the interesting conversations you could have…

  8. OnceWasCool says:

    But my name really is Oncewascool. ;)

  9. Beerad says:

    @wreckingcru: “couldn’t this be used to prevent ID theft?”

    But why? Credit card companies already flag suspicious purposes and notify customers for fraud alerts. But they’re credit card companies – that’s their business. Microsoft isn’t doing this because they’re interested in helpful customers and protecting their business – they’re doing it because it would be amazingly useful to them (for market research, targeted advertising, and whatever else that doesn’t benefit me).

    It would totally cut down on ID theft if we all had to give blood samples when we used a credit card at the store, but that doesn’t make it a justified intrusion into my privacy.

    Besides, this program seems to go way beyond purchasing – it’s tracking all of your browsing. Which, in your analogy, is the equivalent of “Hey, we know that that person is a frequent Consumerist visitor and shops at responsible, consumer-friendly companies! She’s looking at the online EvilCorp X store! Better mark that purchase for review!” Which is a pretty bad fraud detector, and highly unpleasant snooping on my websurfing to boot.

  10. mac-phisto says:

    @wreckingcru: card issuers already employ neural network software to assess fraud risk. not only does it assess risk based on usage habits of the card user, but also known spending habits of ID thieves, & merchants that are most commonly shopped by thieves.

    i highly doubt microsoft’s venture into tracking software is for this purpose. i would assume it’s more for government use (being that almost all government computers are running microsoft os & programs).

    personally, i think this is just part of the microsoft-google pissing contest. winner? google. they have a huge digitized map at their corporate campus that lights up anytime anyone anywhere in the world utilizes any piece of their software.

    beat that microsoft!

  11. mrosedal says:

    Microsoft doesn’t need to hurt themselves any worse than they already have releasing Vista. This has got to be the worst thing ever proposed. You know I am a little concerned about Google and all that they are tracking, but this is far worse. I have log into Google. I have the option to opt out. This sounds more like spying. I would prefer that no one knows my browsing history at all.

    Clearing the cache will help, and keeping your cookies clean. You can set Firefox to ask you to clear all of that data every time you close the browser. Highly recommend it, there is one problem…banks seem to love to register your computer and they do this with a cookie (as if that is secure). But they feel somehow it is secure. I would rather register my computer by answering those stupid questions every time than have a tracking cookie on my machine.

    M$ where did you go wrong????

  12. Trai_Dep says:

    Um, where did they go right? They’ve always been the Evil Empire, and damned proud of it… Strangling innovation, copying their betters and limiting choice since 1984…

  13. wreckingcru says:

    I did say that the way i envision it is a simplified model.
    As far as when she does decide to buy that leather whip, I’m sure the scientists have some way of ensuring that it will be seamless (or at least not very hard) for the customer. That’s why they’re doing the research, and I’m not.

    Btw, this claim that credit card companies monitor suspicious activity is a load of poo-poo. I’ve used my AMEX in Chicago, and then 8 hours later in Frankfurt (obviously I was flying), but no one at AMEX found this the least bit suspicious – what if my card had been stolen and being used in a foreign country?? And then I used to 8 hours later in India making some pretty hefty purchases (with the advantage of preferable exchange rate of Rs.45/$) and not a word was said.

    So excuse me if I don’t buy that argument. I really like AMEX and think they are definitely one of the better CC companies out there, but I doubt they’ll be “monitoring” my card unless I report it stolen or try to buy an airplane on my CC.

  14. cde says:

    @mac-phisto: “they have a huge digitized map at their corporate campus that lights up anytime anyone anywhere in the world utilizes any piece of their software.”

    So it always stays lit, never blinks and doesn’t even have an off switch? Gotcha.

  15. roothorick says:

    After reading how this works, I’m not scared of this at all, at least on a personal level.

    Advertising giant doubleclick.net used the exact same aggregation technique — embedding a cookie on its advertising iframes that gave away the location the iframe was read from. Blocking it was simple — blacklist the cookies, and suddenly they can’t aggregate the data for the probability algorithm in the first place. For Firefox, the blacklist is under Privacy -> Cookies -> Exceptions.

    As for using your existing cache and cookies, there’s a really awesome fix for that if you’re using Firefox. Install this: http://www.safehistory.com/ and this: http://www.safecache.com/ These extensions close loopholes in the Firefox history and cache system that allow webpages to access the cache and history generated by visiting other webpages. As for cookies, well, Microsoft thinks everyone still uses IE. Firefox already has cookie security built in that only allows the originating site to read its cookies, leaving snooping websites out in the rain.

  16. roothorick says:

    On a side note, if you’re using IE and care about your privacy… God help you.

  17. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    So what does it mean to Microsoft if you visit visit The Consumerist regularly and leave snarky comments? Besides, the NSA already has the situation well under control with their own Internet spying program. Maybe the NSA is outsourcing?

  18. jamier says:

    Microsoft has a demo of a similar labs concept here. According to Microsoft, since you’re visiting Consumerist.com, there’s a 53% chance you’re male and a pretty good chance you’re between 18-49.

    Good work Microsoft!

  19. hoo_foot says:

    @wreckingcru Maybe Amex doesn’t monitor credit card activity, but my credit card company certainly does. They have blocked several of my credit card transactions because they were “suspicious.” Blocked transactions included everything from a recent $1500 purchase in computer parts from a US website, a $10 transaction to a Swedish game website, and a block after I made a series of small transactions on a business trip to Washington DC.

    I’m also wondering if this new software will only work while browing in IE. Even if it works across all browsers, I’m sure Firefox or Opera will likely come up with a program that blocks it or renders it ineffective.

  20. royal72 says:

    @Jason: that may be the point why they’re doing it in the first place.

  21. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    Discover always calls my mom after she goes to get gas on her own. She still can’t operate a gas pump, and she’s been driving for like, 15 years….anyway it’s like $2.51, $.0.89, $1.34, $47.12, all from the same gas station within 2 minutes of each other.

  22. erica.blog says:

    This was actually an academic project for somebody’s PhD thesis originally, I guess Microsoft decided to pick up the ball and run with it.

    The whole data tracking thing is pretty useless anyway, although perhaps I only think that because I haven’t ended up on a list of “Gullible People Who Are Lonely So Will Buy Anything From You” yet.