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Just last week, a new report published in Nature’s Scientific Reports confirmed what many already knew and some feared: mobile devices can be used to identify people regardless of whether the information was “anonymized.” That is right: your phone and its data, even if it is touted as “anonymous,” can be used to determine your location (a process known as geolocation). And then that data can be sold by the collector to a third party in order to turn a profit. Or worse.
The idea of privacy is nothing new. Derived from the Latin “privatus,” meaning “to withdraw from public life,” the idea of concealing a fact about oneself or patterns of one’s behavior from the free and wanton scrutiny of others is timeless. Whether it was leaving the walls of your Roman citadel for a few moments of unobserved adventure, wearing a hood in the market to conceal one’s identity while shopping in the marketplace, signing the Federalist Letters with a pen name, or opting out of geolocation tracking, the impulse to conceal one’s identity, thoughts, and behavioral patterns is timeless.
The report in Nature, “Unique in the Crowd: The Privacy Bounds of Human Mobility,” written by MIT’s Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye and three others, shows that this timeless desire is not matched by the technological capacity to protect that privacy. In fact, technological systems regularly and systematically intrude upon it. The process of data anonymization, long thought to be the great equalizer in a world of ever-increasing connectivity and information collection, may have fallen prey to technological advancement inasmuch as the Cray-1 supercomputer. After studying fifteen months of geolocation data for over one and a half million mobile device users, de Montjoye found that, given four spatio-temporal points (e.g., a user’s home, his children’s school, his work, and his church), it is possible to identify 95 percent of all of the 1.5 million users studied. And that accuracy comes despite the “anonymization” performed on the data.
So that begs the question, what brought about this result? Although the ability to compare geolocation data to other information already known about a user and thereby identify them is not new, the ability to compare that information to outside information being readily compiled by other social media and electronic services drastically changes the game. And because of the uniqueness of each anonymized source, “little outside information is needed to re-identify the trace of a targeted individual even in a sparse, large-scale, and coarse mobility dataset,” the researchers said.
So what is the solution? Many have been posited, and indeed a variety of bills have been introduced into Congress (for the most recent, see the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act), yet few if any ideas have stuck. Given that consumers, just like de Montjoye, are experiencing “growing concern,” something must be done. I wrote earlier that the best solution would be a Congressionally-enacted self-regulatory regime, and the same remains true today. Congress must act on behalf of consumers.
—Tim Van Hal
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