Location Data Really Isn't Anonymous
Researchers Show It's Easy to Identify Users
Everyone in the mobile ecosystem, from app developers to your carrier, is now collecting every shred of mobile location data that isn't nailed down and are busily selling that data to whoever wants to buy it
, from civil engineers to marketing agencies. Consumer privacy protections here are virtually nonexistent, and the companies making billions off of your daily life have been busy arguing that there are no need for new protections because the data they collect is anonymized.
However, a new study
by MIT and the Catholic University of Louvain studied fifteen months' worth of "anonymized" collected data from 1.5 million people, and found that people's routines are unique and predictable enough that ferreting out their identity is incredibly easy using just for location logs:
In fact, in a dataset where the location of an individual is specified hourly, and with a spatial resolution equal to that given by the carrier's antennas, four spatio-temporal points are enough to uniquely identify 95% of the individuals. We coarsen the data spatially and temporally to find a formula for the uniqueness of human mobility traces given their resolution and the available outside information.
If that location data is poorly secured, combining it with other databases creates unique and new privacy violation possibilities the researchers say we haven't really even fully started to fathom yet. The scientists tell the BBC
they're not advocating that we stop collecting this data, though they do suggest we need to stop pretending it's truly anonymous, and consider additional privacy protections.
Nosey Busy Bodies Pay attention to your patterns and predictability, for example, when you log on everyday, what time you go to work, when you get off work, where you go everyday, what web sites you visit, the order in which you visit those sites, etc.., then privacy goes out the door. What do you know about your neighbors by watching their daily routines through your house windows? Then make an equation that fits that pattern, and then an equation that fits another type of life style, then crunch the numbers with today's computing power and you will get a smaller set that is easier to search. We are all very predictable!
Foregone conclusion I think it is pretty safe to assume that other than people who are paid to think location data is anonymous (anti-privacy lobbyists and congressmen for example), most everyone understood this already.
Copyright Your Data Claim your location as a product of your original work and then call the copyright trolls.