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    New York Times: When 2+2 Equals a Privacy Question

    The New York Times writes about questions surrounding digital privacy:

    So, what might your movie picks and your medical records have in common?

    How about a potentially false sense of control over who can see your user history?

    While Netflix and some health care concerns say they have been able to offer study data to researchers stripped of specific personal details like your name, phone number and e-mail address, in some cases researchers may be able to re-identify you by correlating anonymous information with the digital trail that you’ve left on blogs, chat rooms and Twitter.

    Of course, you may be fine with that. On the other hand, you may not want complete strangers rummaging around in your history of movie selections or medical needs.

    For example, contestants in Netflix’s competition to improve its recommendation software received a training data set containing the movie preferences of more than 480,000 customers who had, as they say in the trade, been “de-identified.” But as part of a privacy experiment, a pair of computer scientists at the University of Texas at Austin decided to see if it was possible to re-identify those unnamed movie fans.

    By comparing the film preferences of some anonymous Netflix customers with personal profiles on imdb.com, the Internet movie database, the researchers said they easily re-identified some people because they had posted their e-mail addresses or other distinguishing information online. […]

    The idea of an entirely paperless medical system holds the promise of more efficient and cost-effective care. And, with the incentive of stimulus package money, many companies are rushing to sell clinical information systems to streamline services like patient scheduling, sample tracking, and billing at hospitals and clinics.

    In some cases, the same companies that sell data management systems to hospitals and physicians also store that information and then repackage it to make money on other services.

    For more on false anonymization, see my previous posts.

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