Is Anonymous Data a Myth?

Your data is valuable – so why are you giving it away?

Your data is valuable stuff. Without it, companies have to resort to guesswork to find out what consumers really want. In some instances, it can be fairly obvious when a company is accessing your information. Unfortunately, what most people don’t realise is that their data is being used almost constantly without them knowing what for or by who. Even supposedly anonymous data can help to form a highly accurate personal profile, and there’s very little that can be done to stop it. Through personalised ad campaigns and ever more targeted marketing, the invasion of virtual spaces is coming to light. Now that consumers are beginning to understand just how much their data is worth, how will this disrupt business?

Who let the data out?
Earlier this year, Gilad Lotan examined a month’s worth of anonymised location data from two different BuzzFeed users. Lotan, who is BuzzFeed’s vice president of data science, came back with a wealth of information in just a few days. By combining location data with publicly available data from social media sites, Lotan gradually created an informed and accurate identity profile of both users. While in some respects this is surprising, it is also sadly predictable. With the value of data so high, the application of effective de-anonymisation techniques is to be expected. To use certain services, exchanging some data is unavoidable. But this doesn’t mean selling your data soul. When data isn’t being used to improve personal user experience, why should you hand it over? While many people are wary about corporations gathering personal information, few know how to take active steps to reduce it.

“We’re told that data is so valuable, but at the same time we’re encouraged to give it all over to organisations. That doesn’t make sense. There’s a certain amount of wool being pulled over people’s eyes,” says Geoff White, technology journalist and personal data security expert.

Alongside security analyst Glenn Wilkinson, Geoff has co-written a stage show called, ‘The Secret Life of your Mobile Phone’, as demonstrated at Disruption Summit Europe earlier this year. Wilkinson & White show how the devices that we assume to be private to us are chatting away constantly with many others without us realising it.

“For example, if you’re logged into Facebook and you go to another website with the Facebook share button, Facebook knows you’ve visited that website. Even if you’re not actively using Facebook, they’re hoovering up your data.”

Disrupting attitudes to data
If you have a valuable asset, you want to be able to protect it. But how do you secure something that you can’t see? General data security tips include installing antivirus software and backing up files, but these are techniques to make life harder for cybercriminals, not corporations. Perhaps the simplest way to curb the amount of data that businesses can get hold of is to log out of apps and websites. Turning off WiFi, mobile data, Bluetooth and of course location services can also reduce your digital footprint. There are also certain settings options which can be tweaked to reduce ad suggestions. To some extent, it will always be possible to find out some online information about an individual. From a business perspective, the increasing awareness of data protection techniques is perhaps unwanted. The more protective people are about personal info, the harder it will be for corporations to take advantage of them. Nonetheless, this could also create an opportunity for conscientious companies. By inviting users to share data instead of readily taking it, they will create a more positive relationship. They will also be able to provide the relevancy that’s often lost by existing companies when they apply questionable guesswork.

The continuing data security debate is far more complicated than a fight between manipulative corporations and ignorant consumers. Businesses aren’t the enemy. Even so, the more personal data they gather without being completely transparent, the more people will obstruct them. If data is an asset, which it certainly is, then it makes sense to guard it. At the moment the majority of people either don’t know how or simply can’t be bothered. But as businesses probe further into our lives, this attitude will change. If corporations want to retain their customer base, they will have to respond very carefully.

How can you retain ownership of your data? Are corporations in danger of overstepping the mark? Is there such a thing as anonymous data? Share your thoughts and opinions.