Marketing companies are using built-in browser autofill features to learn the email addresses of consumers, according to research published last week.
Browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Chrome have autofill features that allow them to save your email address when you access a website.
However, according to researchers at Princeton University, marketers could be tapping into this feature as a way to get access to email addresses.
As PC Mag reports, there’s nothing stopping marketing companies from using this technology to save login credentials on invisible website forms.
The researchers identified two marketing firms that have been using this tactic to prey on internet users, and it’s happened across an estimated 1,100 sites.
Security concerns around autofill technology has been raised in the past, but it’s the first time researchers have linked the feature to web tracking for marketing purposes.
The only positive thing is that the marketing firms haven’t been stealing password data. Instead, they’ve been using the feature to identify the digital signature of email addresses.
Adthink and Audience are the two marketing firms that have allegedly been exploiting autofill technology. They’re both based in Europe, although the researchers weren’t able to identify the use cases of the data.
Gunes Acar, a Princeton researcher, told PC Mag in an email: “Hashed email addresses are quite persistent identifiers and allow these companies to better track users even if they clear cookies or switch devices.
An email address will also be tied to a whole trail of digital footprints whenever its used for website or internet service sign ups. All that information can be gold for marketing firms in their attempts to home in on potential customers.
While the researchers don’t have a clear idea of what the firms are using the data for, there is evidence that suggests that Adthink could be collecting this information for identifying gender and nationalities.
Neither companies have commented on the situation, but an Adthink-owned website states: “We do not collect any personal information. We do not know who you are. We do not know your residential address, your email address, your phone number or any other personally identifiable information about you.”
Acar added: “This is one of the problems with online tracking: it’s an opaque process, especially once the data is collected from the users’ computer.
“It’s hard to be certain about the exact use of the data without looking into server side processing and data transfers.”
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