Follow your silhouette: Identifying the social account of website visitors through user-blocking side channel

Takuya Watanabe, Eitaro Shioji, Mitsuaki Akiyama, Keito Sasaoka, Takeshi Yagi, Tatsuya Mori

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This paper presents a practical side-channel attack that identifies the social web service account of a visitor to an attacker's website. Our attack leverages the widely adopted user-blocking mechanism, abusing its inherent property that certain pages return different web content depending on whether a user is blocked from another user. Our key insight is that an account prepared by an attacker can hold an attacker-controllable binary state of blocking/non-blocking with respect to an arbitrary user on the same service; provided that the user is logged in to the service, this state can be retrieved as one-bit data through the conventional cross-site timing attack when a user visits the attacker's website. We generalize and refer to such a property as visibility control, which we consider as the fundamental assumption of our attack. Building on this primitive, we show that an attacker with a set of controlled accounts can gain a complete and flexible control over the data leaked through the side channel. Using this mechanism, we show that it is possible to design and implement a robust, large-scale user identification attack on a wide variety of social web services. To verify the feasibility of our attack, we perform an extensive empirical study using 16 popular social web services and demonstrate that at least 12 of these are vulnerable to our attack. Vulnerable services include not only popular social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, but also other types of web services that provide social features, e.g., eBay and Xbox Live. We also demonstrate that the attack can achieve nearly 100% accuracy and can finish within a sufficiently short time in a practical setting. We discuss the fundamental principles, practical aspects, and limitations of the attack as well as possible defenses. We have successfully addressed this attack by collaborative working with service providers and browser vendors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-255
Number of pages17
JournalIEICE Transactions on Information and Systems
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Side channel
  • User identification
  • Web security and privacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • Artificial Intelligence


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