The mobile phone location data arms race: when is anonymous not anonymous?

Mobile phone screen shot
I collect my own location data on OpenPaths. It’s free, and the data is under your own control. I haven’t decided what to do with it yet…

I enjoyed reading a news story on the BBC website today about mobile phone location data and how a few regular locations can identify a person. It is certainly true that data do not have to contain your name, address, date of birth or any national ID numbers to identify you on occasion. It doesn’t work for everyone of course, but in large data sets there will always be a few individuals who can be identified after the fact because they are or become famous. I once analysed a large data set of prescriptions in nursing homes. I was suspicious when cleaning the data of the lady in a certain town who was apparently 103 years old, but I didn’t change the age. It stuck in my mind though, so a year or so later when I read that Britain’s oldest person had passed away in a nursing home in that town at the age of 104, I put two and two together. The newspaper gave her name and some of her life story. Without intending to, I had identified one of my participants, not because the data were any less scrupulously anonymised than they should have been, but simply because she became famous.

I am not at all surprised that phone companies are waking up to the money-spinning potential of our location data. After all, they know who each of the trails belongs to, and our credit card details, so if they team up with the credit card company they will have a very attractive data set to marketing people. Not that I think you can actually tell anything about anyone from such data that would help you sell one more widget, but that’s not the point. It’s a data arms race: they don’t care whether the new Big Data is going to make them any more money, they just have to buy it anyway to stop their competitors from getting it, just in case it’s true and the other guys cash in on it. This is where we got to with complex financial products a few years ago…


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