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Credit card study blows holes in anonymity

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Science  30 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6221, pp. 468
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6221.468

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Summary

For social scientists, the age of big data carries big promises: a chance to mine anonymized demographic, financial, medical, and other vast data sets in fine detail to learn how we lead our lives. For privacy advocates, however, the prospect is alarming. They worry that the people represented in such data may not stay anonymous for long. A study of credit card data in this week's issue of Science bears out those fears, showing that it takes only a tiny amount of personal information to de-anonymize people. The result, coming on top of earlier demonstrations that personal identities are easy to pry from "anonymized" data sets, indicates that such troves need new safeguards. Hope for big data social science may be on the way with a new technique for data protection, called differential privacy, which protects the identity of people in data while still allowing scientists to use the data for research.