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Conference Papers Year : 2023

UA-Radar: Exploring the Impact of User Agents on the Web

Abstract

In the early days of the web, giving the same web page to different browsers could provide very different results. As the rendering engine behind each browser would differ, some elements of a page could break or be positioned in the wrong location. At that time, the User Agent (UA) string was introduced for content negotiation. By knowing the browser used to connect to the server, a developer could provide a web page that was tailored for that specific browser to remove any usability problems. Over the past three decades, the UA string remained exposed by browsers, but its current usefulness is being debated. Browsers now adopt the exact same standards and use the same languages to display the same content to users, bringing the question if the content of the UA string is still relevant today, or if it is a relic of the past. Moreover, the diversity of means to browse the web has become so large that the UA string is one of the top contributors to tracking users in the field of browser fingerprinting, bringing a sense of urgency to deprecate it. In this paper, our goal is to understand the impact of the UA on the web and if this legacy string is still actively used to adapt the content served to users. We introduce UA-Radar, a web page similarity measurement tool that compares in-depth two web pages from the code to their actual rendering, and highlights the similarities it finds. We crawled 270, 048 web pages from 11, 252 domains using 3 different browsers and 2 different UA strings to observe that 100% of the web pages were similar before any JavaScript was executed, demonstrating the absence of differential serving. Our experiments also show that only a very small number of websites are affected by the lack of UA information, which can be fixed in most cases by updating code to become browser-agnostic. Our study brings some proof that it may be time to turn the page on the UA string and retire it from current web browsers.
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Dates and versions

hal-04271971 , version 1 (16-11-2023)

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Jean Luc Intumwayase, Imane Fouad, Pierre Laperdrix, Romain Rouvoy. UA-Radar: Exploring the Impact of User Agents on the Web. WPES '23: 22nd Workshop on Privacy in the Electronic Society, Nov 2023, Copenhagen, Denmark. ⟨10.1145/3603216.3624958⟩. ⟨hal-04271971⟩
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