Is digital anonymity an illusion?


Anonymity in cyberspace is rare—and getting rarer. A Columbia study and student-built website show how just carrying a smartphone can compromise your digital privacy. With Google, Data Science Institute researchers discovered your phone leaks enough information about your physical movements to identify you from thousands.

Two sources of data—a geotagged Instagram photo and Facebook check-in—can pinpoint the same person’s social media accounts even if that person uses different account names, a digital alias unmasked. While smartphone location-tracking helps navigate cities and highways, its security implications are still poorly understood.

To show how much data your smartphone leaks and what that data says about you, study coauthor Chris Riederer, an Engineering graduate student, created You Are Where You Go with two undergraduates, Daniel Echikson '17CC and Stephanie Huang ’17SEAS. The site lets you audit your social media trail by linking at least two of your social media accounts with location-tracking features (like Twitter or Foursquare).

You Are Where You Go calculates how likely someone posted in one app at one time and place, then posted in a second app at another time and place. With relative accuracy, the site uses these digital breadcrumbs to guess your age, race or ethnicity, income, and even if you have children.

“People are now sharing their location on a growing number of apps, often without realizing it,” cautions Riederer. “Companies no longer have to be very sophisticated to access this data and use it for their own purposes.” Learn More.

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