Anonymized Data Really Isn't Anonymous: Vehicle Data Can Easily Be Used To Identify You

from the building-a-surveillance-supernova dept

Companies increasingly hoover up larger and larger oceans of consumer data, promising that security and privacy aren’t much of a worry because data is “anonymized.” But as research has shown time and time again, anonymous data isn’t all that anonymous — since it takes only a modicum of effort to either analyze the data — or cross reference it with other data — to ferret out personal identities. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about NSA surveillance troves or social networking data: anonymous data just isn’t anonymous.

As yet another example of this, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego have found that the data collected by a car’s onboard computer can be surprisingly personal. In fact it’s so personal, the researchers found that they could identify a driver — from a possible list of fifteen drivers — just by looking at data collected from the brake pedal alone:

“The research team found that 15 minutes? worth of data from the brake pedal ? and only the brake pedal ? could lead them to choose the right driver, out of 15 options, 90% of the time. Again, with just the brake pedal data, upping that collected data to 90 minutes? worth, allowed them to pick the correct driver 100% of the time. For a 100% hit rate with 15 minutes? worth of data, they just had to collect records from more than one car part.

By itself, especially with the fifteen person pool, this isn’t really all that alarming. But as we shift toward self-driving automobiles or just highly connected vehicles, this data is going to increasingly find its way into the hands of insurance companies and others. Verizon, for example, is making a significant push toward selling a $15 per month subscription “Hum” service — comprised of a device that plugs into the vehicle’s OBD port and a Bluetooth-enabled device that is clipped to the vehicle visor. The service not only makes a dumb car smart by providing emergency and other services, it gives Verizon — a company already awash in consumer cellular location and other behavior data — a huge amount of additional data to ferret through and monetize.

Especially when cross-referenced with other datasets already in government or corporate collection piles, researchers warn that this opens up the door to allowing insurance companies to dictate rates based on everything from emerging medical problems to when you let your kid drive the car (warning: Wired’s ad block blocker still doesn’t work properly and may block all users):

“…the fingerprinting study, Enev argues, should serve as a more general warning to car owners about the sensitivity of the data that travels across their vehicles? internal networks. The same data that tells their insurance company when they?ve let their 16-year-old kid take their car to prom might just as easily be used to identify drunk driving or a medical condition that?s altered someone?s driving ability, tests Enev claims would actually be simpler than trying to distinguish a driver?s identity.”

Those examples are likely just the tip of the iceberg, as companies cooperate to use that data to their collective, coordinated advantage in ways we haven’t even thought of yet — while consumers are increasingly treated like criminals should they want to control or access much of this data. And given that the “internet of things” continues to have embedded security that’s about as good as no security at all, it’s inevitable that this collected data will increasingly find its way into the public domain.

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Comments on “Anonymized Data Really Isn't Anonymous: Vehicle Data Can Easily Be Used To Identify You”

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Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Anonymization turns out to be a VERY difficult problem

Even those who are sincerely making an effort to anonymize data are quite often shown to have badly missed the mark. I strongly recommend reading De-anonymization is not X: The Need for Re-identification Science by Dr. Arvind Narayanan (CS professor at Princeton) as an introduction to the problem space and as a persuasive argument that a great deal of research needs to be done in this area.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Anonymization turns out to be a VERY difficult problem

Anonymization is impossible as long as the data is kept in a correlated form maintaining the original set groupings.

In other words, actual anonymization can only be achieved with true aggregation, discarding the original unaggregated records.

That dramatically limits the analysis that can be done with large data sets. That’s why they continue to pretend that anonymization works.

Anonymous Coward says:

nothing is ever annonymous!

The more data you have on a subject the easier it is to identify them.

As we collect ever greater piles of data on everyone it will be impossible for any thing to be anonymous, and that is just the way they like it. Business and Politics have long lied to people and have long gotten away with it. What is even worse is that the people know this and still do nothing except foolishly ask a corrupt politician to save them.

We have learned nothing from history, it’s time to repeat it!

Slinky (profile) says:

(warning: Wired’s ad block blocker still doesn’t work properly and may block all users)

Well you can always use firefox, then download Greasemonkey, and install the following user-script.. Anti-Adblock Killer Reek 9.6. Now you can read Wired without ads. This also works with other sites like

Regarding complete anonymity, simply don´t use a computer, and don´t use a cell phone, and stay away from public cameras. Oh and wear a tinfoil hat 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Alcoa? Ha. They’re the least of our worries. Got one word for you brother: government.

What are they trying to do? That’s the missing piece. But it’s not hard to imagine – a government hiding, hoarding, Alien technology for 70 years, at the expense of human life and the future of the planet. Driven not only by corporate greed, but an even darker objective…

The takeover of America.

…and then the world itself, by any means necessary, however violent. Or cruel. Or efficient. By severe drought brought on by weather wars conducted secretly using aerial contaminants and high-altitude electromagnetic waves, in a state of perpetual war to create problem-reaction-solution scenarios to distract, enrage and enslave American citizens at home with tools like the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, which abridged the Constitution in the name of national security. The militarization of police forces in cities across the U.S. The building of prison camps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency with no stated purpose. The corporate takeover of food and agriculture, pharmaceuticals and health care, even the military, in clandestine agendas, to fatten, dull, sicken and control a populace already dumbed down by consumerism.

A government that taps your phone, collects your data and monitors your whereabouts with impunity. A government preparing to use that data against you when it strikes and the final takeover begins. The takeover of America by a well-oiled and well-armed multinational group of elites that will cull, kill and subjugate.

So, yeah man, get yourself ready for that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google and Facebook are probably the most scary

As far as what companies know about you, Google and Facebook are probably the scariest. The Facebook virus is optional though and people should stop using it, including myself.

Google on the other hand, is nearly impossible to avoid. My smartphone is immensely useful from the email, calendar, maps, etc. They even read your email and let you know when you get one about a package delivery and they will track the package for you.

Google knows where I am, what I am doing and who I am with 24 hrs per day. Therefore the government has this information as well. The alternative is to not have these useful services though. Maybe someday there will be serious limits put on what a company and the government can track, but we are in the infancy of this ability so we are a long way away from having our privacy back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Google and Facebook are probably the most scary

“The alternative is to not have these useful services though.”

I hear this sentiment expressed a lot. It’s an example of the fallacy of false dichotomy – as there are many other actions you can take to protect your privacy other than to “not have these useful services”. For some reason a bunch of people think something along the lines of, Since it’s unlikely that I will achieve 100% privacy in all situations, I might as well do nothing. That’s like saying since it’s unlikely I will ever look as good as a professional model, I might as well never exercise. It’s just poor reasoning.

Instead, think of protecting your privacy in terms of what you can do to throw sand in the gears of Big Brother. How can you mess them up (even if it’s just a little). Research what things you can do right now to increase your privacy. Then just keep adding to mix as you go. You won’t always have much of a choice being that some of these services might be mission critical to your specific situation. But where you do have a choice, make the privacy protecting choice.

But, as some have already pointed out in this tread, the public will not be safe from these data rapists until there are meaningful protections written into law, with significant penalties, and those laws enforced. Until then, don’t give up your data without a fight.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Google and Facebook are probably the most scary

“Google on the other hand, is nearly impossible to avoid.”

This is entirely untrue. There is nothing that offers the convenience of Google services, that’s true — but you can do almost all the same things without Google as you can with. Especially things like calendaring, email, maps, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Google and Facebook are probably the most scary

You forgot Microsoft with its aggressive / malicious increase in “anonymous” data collection “to make windows better”.

With Windows 10 it’s so much that EU should fine Microsoft for spying on foreign countries. You can’t turn it off, the things you can turn off will by themselves turn back on.

Even connecting the login account, e-mail login, to an hotmail/microsoft e-mail address. There a tiny tiny, in a corner well hidden, link that say something like “signin with a local account instead”.
It was deliberately designed that way even with a wording of FUD that would trick non-technical users.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you think Cable companies are dicks about the 4th amendment, wait until Detroit gets involved.

I will never buy an automotive product with all the integrated software that is being advertised as a “feature” these days.

The good news is that this move towards digital-dickdom will probably be good for the kit car and antique vehicle markets. It would be nice to see the market diffuse, and maybe see some smaller manufacturers pop up, and perhaps more custom coach building.

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