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Your Data Is For Sale and Anonymization Is Meaningless

by Anthony W. Accurso

Data brokers exist to buy bulk user data collected by advertising tech companies and resell it to other companies, government agencies, and the public. They claim this practice is harmless since the data has been “anonymized”—meaning a user’s name has been replaced by a random advertising identity.

The problem with this claim is that it is trivially easy to “deanonymize” an ad ID and reveal personal information that people usually like to keep private.

“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,” said Bennett Cyphers of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”).

Also, according to the EFF, “an entire industry of ‘identity resolution’ services exists to link ad IDs to real identities at scale.” This allows companies to claim your data can’t be traced back to you, while they’re simply outsourcing that function to other companies.

Further, it doesn’t require corporate resources to deanonymize an ad ID. A map of a device’s movements can be cross-checked against public databases (e.g., property tax records) to easily establish a user’s identity with astonishingly high accuracy.

Companies like Veraset, one such data broker, tightly control information about where their data come from, because of the outrage that often follows from users learning about how their private details are being exploited for profit.

“A lot of these data brokers’ existence depends on people not knowing too much about them because they’re universally unpopular,” said Cyphers. “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.”

Many “free” products and services cost nothing to users because user data are then sold at a profit to pay for their upkeep. And as long as this funding model is lucrative, companies will keep spending phenomenal amounts of money to keep it that way.

So far, only when users are shown “how the sausage is made” is when any outrage about these business practices occurs. Meanwhile, surveillance capitalism continues largely unabated. 


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