People are easily identifiable in huge “anonymized” online datasets, multiple studies show

Perhaps the most worrying example cited: 1.5 m people almost all identifiable from behavioural patterns revealed by location data from mobile phones.

“By analysing a mobile phone database of the approximate locations (based on the nearest cell tower) of 1.5 million people over 15 months (with no other identifying information) it was possible to uniquely identify 95% of the people with just four data points of places and times. About 50% could be identified from just two points.”

The researcher, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye of MIT, proposes that instead of releasing large data sets, researchers and governments should develop interfaces that allow others to ask questions of the data without accessing the raw files. “The idea is to not lose control of the data and ensure it’s anonymous,” he says. “Privacy is not dead. We need it and we’re going to get there.”

Let us hope so. It does not take much imagination to work out how megadata could be used if authoritarian regimes grab power and apply AI.


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