BBC News reports on new research, “Unique in the Crowd: The privacy bounds of human mobility,” about how one can identify individual cellphone users by their location data:
Whenever a phone is switched on, its connection to the network means its position and movement can be plotted.
This data is given anonymously to third parties, both to drive services for the user and to target advertisements.
But a study in Scientific Reports warns that human mobility patterns are so predictable it is possible to identify a user from only four data points.
The growing ubiquity of mobile phones and smartphone applications has ushered in an era in which tremendous amounts of user data have become available to the companies that operate and distribute them – sometimes released publicly as “anonymised” or aggregated data sets. […]
Yet the spread and development of “location services” has outpaced the development of a clear understanding of how location data impact users’ privacy and anonymity. […]
Recent work has increasingly shown that humans’ patterns of movement, however random and unpredictable they seem to be, are actually very limited in scope and can in fact act as a kind of fingerprint for who is doing the moving.
The new work details just how “low-resolution” these location data can be and still act as a unique identifier of individuals.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Catholic University of Louvain studied 15 months’ worth of anonymised mobile phone records for 1.5 million individuals.
They found from the “mobility traces” – the evident paths of each mobile phone – that only four locations and times were enough to identify a particular user.