Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Catholic University of Louvain have released worrying results which reveal how identity can be found through apparently “anonymous” mobile phone data. Not cool.
They found that the “mobility traces” (i.e. the movement of a mobile) was enough to reveal the identity of a particular user. A phone just needs to be switched on and connected to a network to have its movement and position plotted; but extra information found from tweets, location ‘check-ins’ and certain apps add to the compilation of a mobile's location data.
You might think that your movements are so random that it would be impossible for anyone to guess your identity. But you’re wrong. According to the researchers - who studied 15 months’ worth of anonymised mobile records from 1.5 million users – it is possible to find the identity of a user from just four location points.
"In the 1930s, it was shown that you need 12 points to uniquely identify and characterise a fingerprint," said the study's lead author Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye of MIT.
"What we did here is the exact same thing but with mobility traces. The way we move and the behaviour is so unique that four points are enough to identify 95% of people," he told BBC News.
The data collected is of “extraordinary value” to advertisers and although it might be given out anonymously, no one is quite sure how secure that anonymity is. Take, for instance, the data released by AOL in 2006 which outlined 20 million “anonymous” web searches. The New York Times was able to identify “searcher 4417749”.
This news has already sparked debate over the use of supposedly anonymous data by businesses and government agencies.
Jane Frost, chief executive of the market research society, said “the ability to cross social data and deanonymise it is worrying because we haven’t had an open conversation about it. The problem is there is no way for consumers to own this data effectively and to tie it in with their right to be forgotten I think there is a time when data will suddenly be out there and people will be very surprised by it. It will be the next horsemeat scandal”.
"Science and technology constantly make it harder to live in a world where privacy is protected by governments, respected by corporations and cherished by individuals - cultural norms lag behind progress," Sam Smith of Privacy International said.
"Any benefits we receive from such services are far outweighed by the threat that these trends pose to our privacy, and although we are told that we have a choice about how much information we give over, in reality individuals have no choice whatsoever.”
This mobile security lark is scary. But, let’s be honest, if you ain’t got nothing to hide, don’t sweat it :).
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