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Leaked Data Set Reveals Individual Tracking of 12 Million Phones

Old cell phones are pictured in Bordeaux, Southwestern France, July 4, 2017. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

The New York Times has obtained a massive data set of over 50 billion location pings linked to more than 12 million phones which illustrates the ease with which tech companies can track and identify individuals.

The data, which was leaked to the Times, allowed reporters to easily identify individuals by tracking their movements, despite claims by companies like Foursquare, which says it anonymizes personal data when sharing with third parties.

Location data — which is often embedded in apps — is pseudonymized by a 30-digit-long mobile advertising ID which works cross-platform for advertisers and other businesses. The ID can also stitch geolocation together with other information like name, home address, email, phone number or even an identifier tied to your Wi-Fi network.

Using publicly-available information and the IDs in the data set, the Times said it “easily” surveilled a number of prominent individuals.

“We did not name any of the people we identified without their permission,” the report caveats. But it was able to identify patterns in movement to reveal “hints of faltering marriages, evidence of drug addiction, records of visits to psychological facilities,” and other sensitive information.

The selling of user data has come under fire in recent months. In November, documents showed that the California Department of Motor Vehicles generates $50 million a year by selling drivers’ personal information to private companies, in potential violation of a new privacy law set to take effect in January.

In September, Google agreed to pay a $170 million fine for illegally gathering the personal information of children through YouTube and selling it to advertisers.

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