Mass Surveillance by Eavesdropping on Web Cookies
Abstract: We investigate the ability of a passive network observer to leverage third-party HTTP tracking cookies for mass surveillance. If two web pages embed the same tracker which emits a unique pseudonymous identifier, then the adversary can link visits to those pages from the same user (browser instance) even if the user’s IP address varies. Using simulated browsing profiles, we cluster network traffic by transitively linking shared unique cookies and estimate that for typical users over 90% of web sites with embedded trackers are located in a single connected component. Furthermore, almost half of the most popular web pages will leak a logged-in user’s real-world identity to an eavesdropper in unencrypted traffic. Together, these provide a novel method to link an identified individual to a large fraction of her entire web history. We discuss the privacy consequences of this attack and suggest mitigation strategies.