Last month, in my post about personalized marketing, I “touched” on the idea of Fingerprinting as a way to get around a browser that has blocked cookies from being installed.  This week I’m going to talk more about Fingerprinting: what it is, how it can help you as a marketer and a few of the implications it has for you as a human trying to navigate the Internet.

What Is Fingerprinting?

The simple version is this: fingerprinting is something that marketers can do to take a “snapshot” of your computer when you spend time on their sites. That “snapshot” or “fingerprint” tells the marketer things like which browser you’re using, your computer’s operating system, etc.  That information is stored on the site’s server and then, whenever a computer that matches those specs visits the site again, the site assumes it belongs to you and you are served up ads based on what you did the last time you were there.

In a broad sense the idea seems flawed. There are, after all, a finite number of operating systems, browsers, etc. The potential for being mistaken for someone else is huge.

The reality, though, is that fingerprinting scripts are programmed to collect a lot of data—all of which makes you easier to identify. For a quick glance at your own fingerprint, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick tool.

Yeah, I was creeped out too.

Why Fingerprinting is Great For Marketers

Fingerprinting is great from a marketing perspective because it gives you a way around cookie blocking and other privacy protecting plug-ins a visitor to your site may have installed. It allows you to tailor your marketing efforts even when a user wants to remain as anonymous as possible.

That doesn’t mean, though, that it is a perfect solution to anonymous web browsing.

The Human Side of Fingerprinting

Remember: as a marketer, one of the things you need to do is put yourself in the shoes of those to whom you are trying to sell. How would your customers react if they knew that you were “taking pictures” of them without their consent? How would you feel if a company did that to you (or your computer)?

It’s true that some of your customers might not mind your using fingerprinting to remember them if it means that their computers remain cookie-free. It is also true that a non-zero number of them might be highly offended by your not respecting their wishes to remain anonymous. This is why, according to Forbes’ “The Web Cookie is Dying. Here’s the Creepier Technology that Comes Next,” many of the companies who make and use this technology are choosing to do so on the down-low.

Should You Use It?

Whether or not you use fingerprinting scripts is completely up to you. There are literally no laws preventing you from tracking every computer that accesses your site and, in fact, sometimes fingerprinting scripts have been able to identify hackers after attacks on a site have been launched. In that respect, installing the scripts can be a great security measure.

If you do decide to give fingerprinting a shot, I would recommend being as transparent about it as possible. Make sure that you include language about it in your site’s ToS and Privacy Policy. Yes, a few site visitors may choose to click away but really—isn’t it better to lose a few to honesty than to put yourself at risk for accusations of spying or other brand-killing accusations.

Do you use fingerprinting or have an opinion on it? Let us know in the comments!