How unique are we? What does this mean for mobile privacy?

Many policy makers are considering the increased use of (big) data to solve public problems. In many cases, data originating from mobile phones is being used to make, for instance, cities “smart”.

However, a new study published in Scientific Reports demonstrates the privacy implications of our increased mobility. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, César A. Hidalgo, Michel Verleysen and Vincent D. Blondel, all from UC Louvain or MIT, studied fifteen months of human mobility data for one and a half million individuals to determine how easily we can be identified.

The paper starts by explaining the changing context of mobility:

“While in the past, mobility traces were only available to mobile phone carriers, the advent of smartphones and other means of data collection has made these broadly available…. All these are fuelling the ubiquity of simply anonymized mobility datasets and are giving room to privacy concerns…

All together, the ubiquity of mobility datasets, the uniqueness of human traces, and the information that can be inferred from them  highlight the importance of understanding the privacy bounds of human mobility.”

Subsequently, the authors indicate their findings:

“We show that the uniqueness of human mobility traces is high and that mobility datasets are likely to be re-identifiable using information only on a few outside locations. Finally, we show that one formula determines the uniqueness of mobility traces providing mathematical bounds to the privacy of mobility data. The uniqueness of traces is found to decrease according to a power functtion with an exponent that scales linearly with the number of known spatio-temporal points…”

Illustrating the increased potentital to identify anyone using only a few snippets of data:

“Even coarse datasets provide little anonymity. These findings represent fundamental constraints to an individual’s privacy and have important implications for the design of frameworks and institutions dedicated to protect the privacy of individuals…”


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