Every user makes use of different browsers or devices in accessing web services. Also, once connected, you are more likely to notice different looks for the same website under different browsers. Once a browser directs a request to a web service, the browser recognizes itself through the user agent string attached before retrieving the necessary content demanded.

Every user connected to the internet has a user agent (UA). It is some form of software acting as a bridge between the internet and the user. It is easier to understand UAs if you take them alongside the evolution of the internet.

The data contained in the string for user agent, aids websites in delivering the content in a format optimized for the browser. Websites depend on user agents to optimize site content and they remain an essential data source.

Why User-Agents Were Invented?

Released in 1993, the first web browser was the Mosaic, created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The creation of user-agent string aligns with the history and reason behind the idea of various browsers. For Internet Explorer, it seeks identification as Netscape 4; similarly, Firefox also wants identification through Konqueror and WebKit. For Chrome, its identification is through Safari.

Although the idea makes user-agent sniffing a little more tricky, each browser (with Opera as an exception) wants to provide a definitive technique for identification that stands out. An aspect to note about sniffing is every browser invests a great deal of time in delivering optimized content as well as the compatibility of their product.

How Do User-Agents Work?

User-Agents comprise of alphanumeric strings created to serve as identification for the ‘agent’ or program requesting the webserver. The request could be for any information like document, pictures, or web page.

The UA uses the alphanumeric string as a standard portion of web architecture that is sent by all web requests through the HTTP headers. The UA string, in turn, is useful in providing specific data about the hardware and software on the computer or device creating the demand.

Although UA does not identify specific persons, it does offer developers a tremendously powerful approach to analyzing and segmenting traffic. Users can decide on critical decisions regarding how to manage web traffic based on the UA string. Such choices may cover fundamental redirection and segmentation, to more intricate content edition and device targeting verdicts.

The data, collected directly from the UA string itself through the UA parsing process, contains browser, OS, and device details. The UA strings do not follow any standard or pattern. With the UA sent, the outcome of the detection is created equal to match the request approach sent by the computer or device. Some methods may hog server resources due to less sophisticated and disorganized APIs and codebases.

How User-Agents Are Used To Track Your Activity

In the early times, the internet was basically a text-based system, where users had to create commands to navigating and sending messages. Nowadays, the browsers can aid users with a simple point and click actions that act as an “agent,” transforming operations into commands.

Whenever a browser loads a website, a user-agent identification alongside network, computer, or device details and others required is provided to the site. The host of information is a set of data for web developers that permits customization of user experience based on the user agent request. The two basics for device detection includes:

  • Having the User-Agent lookup occur very fast, and
  • Extreme accuracy when identifying the device type.

Almost immediately, the user agent can identify itself to the web server; the process is termed Content Negotiation. The Content Negotiation allows the website to serve different versions of itself, based on the user agent string. The UA also sends its ID card to the server, which responds with a mixture of suitable files, media, and scripts.

Browsers are significant examples of a UA, but other tools like Search engine crawlers which are primarily automated can also act as UAs. A more comprehensive list of likely UAs online can be viewed with this resource link.

Measures To Be Taken In Protecting User-Agent

The UA is generally a software agent that acts on behalf of the user making the request to websites. The format taken by the UA string in HTTP includes a list of keywords alongside optional comments. Seeking privacy with user agents can be helpful, especially if you do not want to be followed by promotional websites. The primary attack comes with access to user data, and some privacy steps can be taken to limit such access.

A notable approach is by blocking specific UAs. Some unwanted visitors always try to seek access and preventing their UAs would stop any traffic containing specified keywords in the UA field.

Another approach is to keep your browser updated and only engage the default user agent. Making regular switches amongst them might seem unusual, so once you feel worried about being tracked, it becomes necessary to blend with others by using reliable browsers. Millions of users engage popular browsers who make use of the same UA, so by using the default UA, it limits the difference.

Also, users can enable tracking protection. The use of tracking protection makes it harder for websites to follow such users. And the harder it becomes, the more your chances are with better privacy.

In Conclusion

User-Agents are helpful to both browsers and users. In the early days of the internet, user agents were engaged in distinguishing Mosaic from Mozilla, since frames were supported on Mozilla and not Mosaic. With several advanced browser features getting detected directly via JavaScript presently, the UA string modern use is in figuring out what device/platform a client is using.

The idea of optimized content suitable to your computer or device connected to the internet makes them a resourceful tool. With the data exchange happening in a matter of seconds, user privacy may face some challenges when such data becomes compromised.  The use of tracking protection systems and updated browsers offer a practical approach to tackling this challenge.


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