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Using a mobile phone betrays your privacy

There's no way around it, apparently
Tue Mar 26 2013, 16:03

MOBILE PHONE USERS ARE DOOMED to surrender their privacy every time they use their device.

That's more or less what research from MIT's Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, César A Hidalgo, Michel Verleysen and Vincent D Blondel has found, anyway.

The four researchers have published a scientific paper in Nature that argues that it is possible to confirm a person's identity through regularly sent and received mobile phone data.

"We study 15 months of human mobility data for one and a half million individuals and find that human mobility traces are highly unique," said the paper's introduction.

"In fact, in a dataset where the location of an individual is specified hourly, and with a spatial resolution equal to that given by the carrier's antennas, four spatio-temporal points are enough to uniquely identify 95 [percent] of the individuals."

The report said that it is possible to identify where a person is, in time and space, through cellular phone mobility data, and it warned that this sort of thing should be considered when networks are being designed and data privacy regulations created.

The quartet said that while network providers have had the ability to do this for some time, it is now possible to pull it together piecemeal, and can be done by almost any one of a number of organisations and methods.

These include smartphone app providers that ask for and get a user's location, payment providers that geotag information, WiFi networks that track connection information, and advertising networks that collect all kinds of geolocation information.

"A simply anonymised dataset does not contain name, home address, phone number or other obvious identifier," they add. "Yet, if individual's patterns are unique enough, outside information can be used to link the data back to an individual."

The results highlight that the ease of which information can be gathered is of "growing concern", suggesting that almost anyone with a few resources could trace down a person in a relatively short time.

"Little outside information is needed to re-identify the trace of a targeted individual even in a sparse, large-scale, and coarse mobility dataset," the researchers said.

"Given the amount of information that can be inferred from mobility data, as well as the potentially large number of simply anonymised mobility datasets available, this is a growing concern... Knowing the bounds of individuals' privacy will be crucial in the design of both future policies and information technologies." µ


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