'Anonymized Data' Is A Gibberish Term, And Rampant Location Data Sales Is Still A Problem

from the doing-nothing-helpful dept

As companies and governments increasingly hoover up our personal data, a common refrain is that nothing can go wrong because the data itself is "anonymized" -- or stripped of personal identifiers like social security numbers. But time and time again, studies have shown how this really is cold comfort, given it takes only a little effort to pretty quickly identify a person based on access to other data sets. Yet most companies, many privacy policy folk, and even government officials still like to act as if "anonymizing" your data actually something.

That's a particular problem when it comes to user location data, which has been repeatedly abused by everybody from stalkers to law enforcement. The data, which is collected by wireless companies, app makers and others, is routinely bought and sold up and down a major chain of different companies and data brokers providing layers of deniability. Often with very little disclosure to or control by the user (though companies certainly like to pretend they're being transparent and providing user control of what data is traded and sold).

For example, last year a company named Veraset handed over billions of location data records to the DC government as part of a COVID tracking effort, something revealed courtesy of a FOIA request by the EFF. While there's no evidence the data was abused in this instance, EFF technologist Bennett Cyphers told the Washington Post Veraset is one of countless companies allowed to operate so non-transparently. Nobody even knows where the datasets they're selling and trading are coming from:

"A lot of these data brokers’ existence depends on people not knowing too much about them because they’re universally unpopular,” Cyphers said. “Veraset refuses to reveal even how they get their data or which apps they purchase it from, and I think that’s because if anyone realized the app you’re using … also opts you into having your location data sold on the open market, people would be angry and creeped out."

While a long list of companies continue to insist that the massive scale this data is bought and sold at is no big deal because the data is "anonymous," experts (with mixed success) keep pointing out that's not really true:

"If you look at a map of where a device spends its time, you can learn a lot: where you sleep at night, where you work, where you eat lunch, what bars and parks you go to,” Cyphers said. Because of that, he added, it’s extremely simple “to associate one of these location traces to a real person."

After major location data scandals at both Securus and wireless carriers, it looked like we might see actual reform on this front, but those efforts have largely stalled. Bills specifically targeting location data have gone nowhere. The occasional fines levied against such companies are a tiny fraction of the revenues made from the data in the first place. And our 20-year effort to have anything even vaguely resembling a useful federal privacy law for the internet era remains mired in gridlock thanks to a massive coalition of cross industry lobbying opposition with a near-unlimited budget.

Which means most of these companies are going to keep collecting and selling access to this data, while pretending they don't sell access, that the data they collect is anonymous and harmless, and that absolutely any oversight or transparency requirements are unnecessary. And the parade of scandals, breaches, and abuse of this data will continue, until eventually there's a scandal so large that the problem can no longer be cavalierly brushed aside.

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Filed Under: anonymized data, location data, privacy
Companies: veraset


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2021 @ 6:33am

    which has been repeatedly abused by everybody from stalkers to law enforcement.

    I'm pretty sure there's already overlap between those two groups.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rocky, 22 Nov 2021 @ 7:48am

    As long as the data contains any reference or can be tied to the real world it isn't anonymized.

    TL;DR: Anonymized data isn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TaboToka (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 8:08am

    "Anonymized"

    You know if you asked these brokers/companies how they specifically anonymized the data, you would be a) ignored, b) lied to or c) denied due to 'trade secrets'

    If nothing else, I'd like to know how a data set is anonymized, what data fields are in the set and to be able to see my own 'anonymized' data records.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2021 @ 11:00am

      Re: "Anonymized"

      A way to do it properly is only aggregate generic statistics without information which may be used as proxies like say time of day or of course IP address. You can say "the traffic spiked Thanksgiving Weekend, 65% of it from Chrome". That of course reduces the value of the data but it has some uses.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2021 @ 8:12am

    There may be....

    "a scandal so large that the problem can no longer be cavalierly brushed aside", but I doubt that there is a scandal so large that it cannot be forgotten, given enough time.

    The abusers know this, so if such a scandal hits, they will orchestrate a massive "do something" runaround that doesn't actually achieve anything and keep it going until we the people forget the original scandal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 8:13am

    Had to take one of those dumbass Online Security Training things at work last week.

    Got marked wrong for putting "first name" under "can be used to identify an individual."

    Which just tells me the test was written by somebody whose first name isn't Thaddeus.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      sumgai (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 9:03am

      Re:

      The first thing I would've asked this clown was "Did your parents give you first and last names? Did they use these names throughout your childhood? And did you answer to either of those names because you knew you were being singled out from every one else..... i.e. identified?"

      If you get a deer-in-the-headlights look, or more likely, a ration of "I'm in charge, don't question me!", tell the people who hired this asshat that he's incompetent. (Being as this was online, substitute "company" for "he" or "him".)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 9:21am

        Re: Re:

        I've learned not to bother.

        One company I worked at (okay it was GoDaddy) my first week I had to take this online security test which, among other things, recommended that you comply with the "mixed case plus symbols" requirement by starting your password with a capital letter and ending with an exclamation point.

        I e-mailed the security team to let them know this was terrible advice. Never heard back.

        That was...2013, I think? I'm sure they're not using that test anymore (because it was Flash-based), but that doesn't mean whatever test they're using now is any better.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Nov 2021 @ 5:29am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Isn't that how everyone complies with such requirements? That, or underscores as spaces if using multiple words.

          Asking people to make gibberish passwords is the terrible advice, because they won't remember them and will have to resort to writing them down or using the same one everywhere.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2021 @ 9:34am

    Nobody even knows where the datasets they're selling and trading are coming from

    That's very interesting. How then does anyone even know the datasets aren't totally fake?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2021 @ 11:03am

      Re:

      For one statistics can give hints - for example one red flag in accounting is all digits occuring nearly an equal number of times as opposed to biased towards the "lower half" - an interaction of sums and which are more common.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 10:13am

    Simplify

    And our 20-year effort to have anything even vaguely resembling a useful federal privacy law for the internet era remains mired in gridlock thanks to a massive coalition of cross industry lobbying opposition with a near-unlimited budget.

    ". . . thanks to corruption." would be much simpler. Maybe not as explanatory, but just as accurate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 12:55pm

    Gotta disagree with you

    'Anonymized Data' Is A Gibberish Term

    It's not gibberish, it is a perfectly good euphemism, like 'retrenchment' for 'fired', or 'wet work' for 'murder'. Just another way of protecting delicate, snooping ears from reality.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 22 Nov 2021 @ 1:42pm

    wasnt long ago,

    that the adverts I would see on Roku, and the internet, trying to show my location were off by over 40 miles, and farther in the past, it was around 100 miles.
    At this time, they are within 10 miles, and even naming my town.
    But who has released this data?
    ISP
    Chrome
    Firefox
    Microstuff?(soft)
    Amazon
    Newegg
    Roku
    My router? Which has been registered in my name, and has a # in it specific to this device. which the ISP needs.

    OR even the gov. forcing this data to Come out and matching all the random data. It has been shown over time that with enough Data, they can Finally figure out Enough about all of us.

    What logic can we figure out that would interconnect us to the Whole system to be Easily identified. Between your router and modem, which both has a NICE intricate numbers, what would it take and Who to hack to get this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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