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Anonymous data does not live up to its billing

by on08 February 2017

Boffins can tie data to your ID most of the time

For a while the standard defence that various companies have used to collect your online data is that it is “anonymised” and cannot be linked back to you.

However Researchers at Stanford and Princeton have succeeded in identifying 70 percent of web users by comparing their web-browsing history to publicly available information on social networks. This makes most of the anonymous data collected a hugely valuable trove of publicly available data on your personal doings

The study "De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks" [PDF] found that it was possible to reattach identities to 374 sets of apparently anonymous browsing histories simply by following the connections between links shared on Twitter feeds and the likelihood that a user would favour personal recommendations over abstract web browsing.

Test subjects were provided with a Chrome extension that extracted their browsing history; the researchers then used Twitter's proprietary URL-shortening protocol to identify links. 81 percent of the top 15 results of each enquiry run through the de-anonymisation program contained the correct re-identified user.

About 72 percent of the results identified the user on the first go and only required a trip to the Twitter user ID. There are problems if a user is pseudonymous, because it requires more digging to confirm the real identity, but it is not exactly rocket science.
UTM codes in URLs offer the possibility of re-identification even where encryption is present.

Last modified on 08 February 2017
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