There’s No Such Thing as Anonymous Data

Analysis of huge datasets offers the potential for lifesaving health care, productive economies and workplaces, and smooth highway traffic. Yet consumers must assume that every electronic transaction could be compromised, suggests Scott Berinato for Harvard Business Review. Berinato reports on a paper published in Science by Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye showing how “anonymous credit card data can be reverse engineered to identify individuals’ transactions, a finding which calls into question many of the policies developed to protect consumers and forces data scientists to reconsider the policies and ethics that guide how they use large datasets.” The researcher examined a dataset of more than 1 million people. Relying on date and location from four transactions of each person, de Montjoye could identify 90 percent of users. The ability to pinpoint identity increases with knowledge of prices or social-media postings as well as for women and consumers with higher incomes. Berinato concludes, “it means that anonymity doesn’t ensure privacy, which could render toothless many of the world’s laws and regulations around consumer privacy.” – YaleGlobal

There’s No Such Thing as Anonymous Data

Big datasets offer great problem-solving potential, but paper in Science shows how reverse-engineering of a few date, location details exposes most identities
Scott Berinato
Friday, February 13, 2015

Scott Berinato is a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review.       

Copyright © 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved.

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