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Study shows how easy it is to determine someone’s identity with cell phone data

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Posted March 26, 2013
An artistic representation of being “unique in the crowd,” representing the new finding that human mobility traces are highly unique, and mobility data can be used to reconstruct individuals’ movements in space and time. The original photo is on the right. Credit: Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, et al. Original image “Grand Central Station” by theotter

An artistic representation of being “unique in the crowd,” representing the new finding that human mobility traces are highly unique, and mobility data can be used to reconstruct individuals’ movements in space and time. The original photo is on the right. Credit: Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, et al. Original image “Grand Central Station” by theotter

While most people know that using a cell phone means that the phone’s location is being recorded, a new study has revealed just how little information is required to determine an individual’s personal identity. By analyzing 15 months of cell phone mobility data from 1.5 million people, researchers have found that only four spatio-temporal points (an individual’s approximate whereabouts at the approximate time when they’re using their cell phone) are all that’s needed to uniquely identify 95% of the individuals. The study has implications for modifying privacy law in order to keep pace with technological advances.

The researchers, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, and his coauthors, have published their paper in Nature’s Scientific Reports on how cell phone data places fundamental constraints on the privacy of an individual’s mobility traces.

Read more at: Phys.org

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