Anonymized data is rarely anonymous

Justin Sherman for Wired points out the farce that is anonymized data:

Data on hundreds of millions of Americans’ races, genders, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, political beliefs, internet searches, drug prescriptions, and GPS location histories (to name a few) are for sale on the open market, and there are far too many advertisers, insurance firms, predatory loan companies, US law enforcement agencies, scammers, and abusive domestic and foreign individuals (to name a few) willing to pay for it. There is virtually no regulation of the data brokerage circus.

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Virtual proctoring simulation

Many colleges use virtual proctoring software in an effort to reduce cheating on tests that students take virtually at home. But the software relies on facial recognition and assumptions about the proper testing environment. YR Media breaks down the flaws and even provides a simulation so that you can see what it’s like.

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Family safety app sells location data to third parties

Life360 is a service that lets families keep track of where members are based on phone location data. For The Markup, Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng report on how Life360 then sells that data to third parties for millions of dollars:

Through interviews with two former employees of the company, along with two individuals who formerly worked at location data brokers Cuebiq and X-Mode, The Markup discovered that the app acts as a firehose of data for a controversial industry that has operated in the shadows with few safeguards to prevent the misuse of this sensitive information. The former employees spoke with The Markup on the condition that we not use their names, as they are all still employed in the data industry. They said they agreed to talk because of concerns with the location data industry’s security and privacy and a desire to shed more light on the opaque location data economy. All of them described Life360 as one of the largest sources of data for the industry.

You kind of expect this from a free app, but Life360 is a paid service that collects children’s location data. Seems questionable.

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Optimizing retail spaces

Patrick Sisson for The New York Times reports on the growing popularity of tracking customer movement in stores:

Complicating efforts to address privacy concerns is a lack of regulatory clarity. Without an overarching federal privacy law or even a shared definition of personal data, retailers must sort through layers of state and municipal rules, such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act, said Gary Kibel, a partner at the law firm Davis+Gilbert who specializes in retail privacy.

Technology companies counter the pushback by noting that their systems are designed to limit what they collect and anonymize the rest. For instance, Standard AI’s system does not capture faces, so they cannot be analyzed with facial recognition technology.

Uh huh.

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Your location for sale

Companies collect and aggregate location data from millions of people’s phones. Then that data gets sold in a multibillion-dollar market. Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng for The Markup report on who’s doing the collecting and where your data goes:

Once a person’s location data has been collected from an app and it has entered the location data marketplace, it can be sold over and over again, from the data providers to an aggregator that resells data from multiple sources. It could end up in the hands of a “location intelligence” firm that uses the raw data to analyze foot traffic for retail shopping areas and the demographics associated with its visitors. Or with a hedge fund that wants insights on how many people are going to a certain store.

“There are the data aggregators that collect the data from multiple applications and sell in bulk. And then there are analytics companies which buy data either from aggregators or from applications and perform the analytics,” said Tsiounis of Advan Research. “And everybody sells to everybody else.”

It just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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Seeing how devices talk to each other

Your computer connects to your router, which connects to your modem. Your printer connects to your computer. The devices all send data and talk to each other. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli imagined these conversations in augmented reality:

The application would first detect all of the different devices connected to your network; this would include the more obvious ones like computers or phones, as well as other things, like TVs, speakers, game consoles, vacuums or washing machines. It would then locate their manufacturing data and use it to recast your devices as charming characters, spawning on nearby surfaces in augmented reality. Each character’s design would hint at the device it represents while remaining playful and open to interpretation (e.g. a character that resembles a TV portraying your TV).

The playful, cartoon-like devices contrast with the more creepy angle of a connected home.

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Seeing how devices talk to each other

Your computer connects to your router, which connects to your modem. Your printer connects to your computer. The devices all send data and talk to each other. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli imagined these conversations in augmented reality:

The application would first detect all of the different devices connected to your network; this would include the more obvious ones like computers or phones, as well as other things, like TVs, speakers, game consoles, vacuums or washing machines. It would then locate their manufacturing data and use it to recast your devices as charming characters, spawning on nearby surfaces in augmented reality. Each character’s design would hint at the device it represents while remaining playful and open to interpretation (e.g. a character that resembles a TV portraying your TV).

The playful, cartoon-like devices contrast with the more creepy angle of a connected home.

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A short film on giving up privacy, for better or worse

We know what you did during lockdown is a short fiction film by Financial Times that demonstrates the challenges of using data for good at the sacrifice of privacy and the complexity of individual lives. Worth the watch.

I immediately wanted to unplug every single internet-connected device in the house. But of course I did not.

See also the short film Sight from 2012, which imagines a world where everyone’s reality is augmented with data through digitized contact lenses.

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When you don’t own your face

For The New York Times, Kashmir Hill describes the implications of facial recognition becoming a thing that everyone just has:

Retail chains that get their hands on technology like this could try to use it to more effectively blacklist shoplifters, a use Rite Aid has already piloted (but abandoned). In recent years, surveillance companies casually rolled out automated license-plate readers that track cars’ locations, which are frequently used to solve crimes; such companies could easily add face reading as a feature. The advertising industry that tracks your every movement online would be able to do so in the real world: That scene from “Minority Report” in which Tom Cruise’s character flees through a shopping mall of targeted pop-up ads — “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now!” — could be our future.

No thank you.

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Public agencies using facial recognition software without oversight

An anonymous source supplied BuzzFeed News with usage data from Clearview AI, the facial recognition service that was banned by many police departments nationwide. Many agencies still used and/or tried it:

The data, provided by a source who declined to be named for fear of retribution, has limitations. When asked about it in March of this year, Clearview AI did not confirm or dispute its authenticity. Some 335 public entities in the dataset confirmed to BuzzFeed News that their employees had tested or worked with the software, while 210 organizations denied any use. Most entities — 1,161 — did not respond to questions about whether they had used it.

Still, the data indicates that Clearview has broadly distributed its facial recognition software to federal agencies and police departments nationwide, offering the app to thousands of police officers and government employees, who at times used it without training or oversight. Often, agencies that acknowledged their employees had used the software confirmed it happened without the knowledge of their superiors, let alone the public they serve.

BuzzFeed News also made a searchable table so you can see if your local agencies are on the list.

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