What Do They NOT Know?

And the answer is … less and less. The Wall Street Journal’s series “What They Know,” which is an exposé of privacy “violations” on the Web, has been running since July 30, 2010. The thirteenth column in the series was published on December 18, 2010. I previously mentioned this WSJ series in my November 1, 2010 column “Privacy? What Privacy?” as well as in my January 17, 2011 column “Those Data are Mine(d).” I have suggested that you might want to follow the series, which you can easily do at http://online.wsj.com/public/page/what-they-know-digital-privacy.html

The December 18 WSJ article, “Your Apps Are Watching You: A WSJ Investigation finds that iPhone and Android apps are breaching the privacy of smartphone users,” by Scott Thurn and Yakari Iwatani Kane, describes how a large number of smartphone apps are sending off scads of personal information to marketers. Perhaps the most impressive part of the article is the amount of research that WSJ staffers actually performed. They set up a test environment in which they could monitor the information being sent out by phones’ apps. Of the101 popular smartphone apps that the WSJ researchers examined, 56 transmitted the phones’ UDIDs (unique device identification numbers). 47 transmitted the location of the phone, and 5 sent out age, gender and other personal details.

While the claim by the senders and receivers of such information is that they do not collect personally identifiable data, we all know is that all it needs for specific attribution is access to some database that relates the unique phone ID to individuals or some data mining software that can infer from the thousands of data items collected on each individual and stored in an Acxiom, or a similar “data management and retrieval” software, who the person is with a high degree of assurance. And either it is being done now without the WSJ reporters’ specific knowledge or it’s just around the corner.

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