Anonymity in a connected world

I was reading this article Your Morning Commute is Unique: On the Anonymity of Home/Work Location Pairs, by Arvind Narayanan, and it got me thinking. (Thanks to @jamespage for pointing to this article.)

He starts out by citing this study by two PARC researchers and concluding that “for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.” Isn’t it amazing how fast anonymity breaks down?

Cover art for new Penguin edition of Orwell's 1984 (Shepard Fairey)

Now just having those two data points alone would leave your anonymity intact, but the potential danger comes in if this information is able to be shared by or among mobile connectivity providers, credit card companies, government agencies, advertisers and social networking services.

It could be that my paranoia level was increased after having seen this article in New York Times describing the amount of data mining and interpretation currently being used by the credit card industry.

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year… Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.

By the time he publicized his findings, a small industry of math fanatics — many of them former credit-card executives — had started consulting for the major banks that issued cards, and they began using Martin’s findings and other research to build psychological profiles.

So when people start to use their cell phones to pay for merchandise, location information will be added to the database, too. Conspiracy theorists, novelists and filmmakers, rejoice! There are some great storylines to be made from this stuff. But, seriously, should we be worried about these developments?

Late breaking: With respect to U.S. constitutional law, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that tracking a suspect via the global positioning system without a warrant violated his right to privacy. A stalker could be uniquely linked to the victim by GPS tracking, for instance. Hat tip to @stoweboyd for the lead. [Added 15 May 12:30 CET]

  • http://laguardiabianca.splinder.com/ stefko

    Strange life, I'm beginning to read this book right now.
    I'll tell you soon what it will think of it ;-)

  • http://pongo.motime.com howard

    It's a classic. To betray my age, I remember reading this book in high school and thinking, “gee, 1984, I wonder what the world will be like in the distant future.”

  • http://laguardiabianca.splinder.com/ stefko

    Infinite sadness in this book, there's no escape.
    And it's not so far away from reality.

  • http://laguardiabianca.splinder.com/ stefko

    Infinite sadness in this book, there's no escape.
    And it's not so far away from reality.

  • itjobs1

    Thanks for that! That's very useful. ;-)