De-anonymizing is the biggest threat to privacy that no one talks about

Unidentified silhouette of a man with his arms crossed.
ivan_kislitsin / Shutterstock.com

Are you really anonymous on the internet? Despite your best efforts, artificial intelligence and permanent monitoring systems around you can reveal your identity and activities to anyone with access to that “anonymised” data in a practice known as “de-anonymization.”

Your data is valuable

Most of the services you enjoy but don’t pay for directly online make money By collecting and selling data. This data includes everything you do on the Internet, tracking Third Party Cookies across multiple sites. Other types of data such as location data can also be harvested, and it doesn’t stop there. All accurate information about how you interact with digital systems can be recorded and analyzed.

This data is “anonymised,” which simply means that information that directly identifies you is removed. These are things like your name, IP address, physical address, and anything similar. What remains is everything else, which can be used to create detailed profiles connected to an ad ID.

Re-identification has become trivial

Small redwood figurine separated from other wooden figurines.
Andrey Yalansky / Shutterstock.com

The problem with this anonymization is that it has become trivial to re-identify the anonymized data by referencing it with publicly available information or with information collected from multiple websites using the above-mentioned tracking cookies.

There is an entire data brokerage industry that has grown up around creating these marketing profiles that can be sold to anyone willing to pay for them. Data brokers are brilliantly explained by John Oliver on an episode of last week tonight.

Imagine you have a phone book that, apart from your name, address, and phone number, also tells people about your income, health problems, life stage, and more. Re-identification is very easy to researchers Estimation that “99.98% of Americans will correctly re-identify in any data set using 15 demographic traits.”

De-anonymizing and cryptocurrency

Aside from the normal data collection process that happens every day, there is a special kind of anonymity concern associated with blockchain Techniques like Cryptocurrency. The blockchain ledger keeps a perfect record of every transaction that has occurred since the blockchain was created.

Cryptocurrency wallets Just groups of numbers without names. This has led to Belief that cryptocurrency is anonymous. The problem is that transactions on the blockchain can be matched to third-party data that is anonymizing. This can include when you exchange cryptocurrency for dollars, when a product you purchased with cryptocurrency is shipped to your home address, or anything else where activity or amounts reflected on the blockchain matches something that is not anonymous.

That is why there are cryptocurrency mixers and mags, which perform random transactions and exchange coins in participating wallets, thus blocking the path. Some cryptocurrencies, such as Monerofrom the ground up to combat this problem.

However, even if you use a strong, anonymous currency today, future computing technology may easily decrypt the blockchain, which is indelible. So something you did decades before that point could be discovered in the future, and if it’s already on the blockchain, there’s nothing you can do about it!

What can you do?

The first and most effective thing that you can do is to change the type of software you use to perform searches or browse on the Internet. There are engines (eg DuckDuckGo) and browsers (eg brave) which specifically blocks cookies and other tracking methods to prevent data collection.

Apple has a policy where apps have to ask if they can track you. For a comprehensive solution, you can go to Privacy > Tracking on your iOS device and disable Allow apps to request tracking.

The only real downside for you as a user is that you will now see random ads that may not be relevant to you, but that is a small price to pay for privacy.

You can also be selective about when and how you prevent tracking. Limit it to things you definitely don’t want people to know about you, but be more lenient about facts you don’t worry about. For example, you can ask apps in iOS not to be tracked on a case-by-case basis, depending on how sensitive this information is to you. You can also use a file Privacy Browser (inside virtual machinethrough Tor . networkand with VPN if I were truly concerned) only for sensitive browsing. Thus dividing your online life into public and private domains.

If you are really concerned about your smartphone or other devices revealing that you are on sensitive sites, you also have an option Using a Faraday bagwhich will temporarily block all radio signals from your phone until you take them out.

For the information already collected, this is a more difficult problem. A lot depends on where you live. In Europe, for example, General Data Protection Regulation The legal framework gives citizens a remedy and a “right to be forgotten,” but this is not the case in the United States. The most practical thing you can do is to control and limit future tracking, until the information you have about you becomes worthless.