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How Privacy Vanishes Online


Alessandro Acquisti mined Web data to successfully predict Social Security numbers.

Ross Mantle for The New York Times

If a stranger came up to you on the street, would you give him your name, Social Security number and e-mail address?

Yet people often dole out all kinds of personal information on the Internet that allows such identifying data to be deduced. Services like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are oceans of personal minutiae—birthday greetings sent and received, school and work gossip, photos of family vacations, and movies watched.

Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number.

“Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it.”

In a class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that received some attention last year, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree analyzed more than 4,000 Facebook profiles of students, including links to friends who said they were gay. The pair was able to predict, with 78 percent accuracy, whether a profile belonged to a gay male.

So far, this type of powerful data mining, which relies on sophisticated statistical correlations, is mostly in the realm of university researchers, not identity thieves and marketers.

But the F.T.C. is worried that rules to protect privacy have not kept up with technology.

From The New York Times
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