Tracked Without a Trace: Linking Sessions of Users by Unsupervised Learning of Patterns in Their DNS Traffic

Matthias Kirchler, Dominik Herrmann, Jens Lindemann, Marius Kloft


Behavior-based tracking is an unobtrusive technique that allows observers to monitor user activities on the Internet over long periods of time -- in spite of changing IP addresses. Previous work has employed supervised classifiers in order to link the sessions of individual users. However, classifiers need labeled training sessions, which are difficult to obtain for observers. In this paper we show how this limitation can be overcome with an unsupervised learning technique. We present a modified k-means algorithm and evaluate it on a realistic dataset that contains the Domain Name System (DNS) queries of 3,862 users. For this purpose, we simulate an observer that tries to track all users, and an Internet Service Provider that assigns a different IP address to every user on every day. The highest tracking accuracy is achieved within the subgroup of highly active users. Almost all sessions of 73% of the users in this subgroup can be linked over a period of 56 days. 19% of the highly active users can be traced completely, i.e., all their sessions are assigned to a single cluster. This fraction increases to 40% for shorter periods of seven days. As service providers may engage in behavior-based tracking to complement their existing profiling efforts, it constitutes a severe privacy threat for users of online services. Users can defend against behavior-based tracking by changing their IP address frequently, but this is cumbersome at the moment.

9th ACM Workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Security (AISec), co-located with the 23rd ACM Conference on Computer and Communications (CCS). Vienna, Oct 28, 2016.
September, 2016