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In the Real World Anonymous Data Is Not So Anonymous

An unfortunate cause of New York bankruptcy cases is identity theft. If a thief gets a hold of a consumer’s personal financial information he or she can easily open false accounts in that consumer’s name and run up substantial charges. Medical identity theft is also a possibility. Consumers can reverse many of these activities, but it takes time, and it might not be possible to do so before other bills become due, leading to bankruptcy. A crucial step to preventing this from happening is for consumers to protect their personal financial information, but as the Equifax breach demonstrated, it increasingly falls to third parties to safeguard people’s information—third parties that may not have much of an incentive to do so, unlike the government. If that wasn’t enough, a recent article in U.K. publication The Guardian recently shows that it’s quite easy to de-anonymize large datasets of personal information. How serious is this, and what can debtors do about it?

According to the article, there are a handful of unvarying markers people use that can essentially identify them without much effort. A pertinent list includes: dates of birth, genders, and ZIP codes. Although statistically it’s quite common for a small group of people to share the same birthdate, the year, gender, and location of any one person makes it all but certain who that individual is, often based on voter registration data or other public databases that combine all these pieces of information.

The potential to successfully identify individuals out of anonymous datasets is quite high. In one study, 87 percent of the U.S. population could be identified with the information listed above. More disturbingly, allegedly anonymous medical records showing patients’ operation dates could also be combined with other public datasets to identify the patients.

The same can be said of geolocation data on mobile phones. Combined with credit-card purchases, researchers can fairly confidently identify people based on their commutes to and from work, their regular spending patterns, and the applications they use.

The article laments that consumers don’t have many options for staying truly anonymous. Using only cash or checks for transactions or abandoning mobile phones are not practical options. They also don’t address the de-anonymizing efforts based on the handful of personal characteristics listed above: birthdate, gender, and ZIP code. Rather, it recommends government and private-sector sources limit researchers’ capacity to duplicate datasets for themselves.

The Guardian article is here.

The truth of the matter is that there’s really no way to perfectly protect your data from anyone. Cautious is warranted, but at least the situations described in the article indicate that the types of information one can glean from a database aren’t the kind that can be used to commit serious identity theft. However, that means information such as Social Security numbers should be given out very rarely because so much else is already available.

If you have suffered identity theft, and it’s affected your ability to repay your debts, then talking to an experienced New York bankruptcy lawyer can help you assess your options.

For answers to more questions about bankruptcy, the automatic stay, effective strategies for dealing with foreclosure, and protecting your assets in bankruptcy please feel free to contact experienced Brooklyn bankruptcy attorney Bruce Weiner for a free initial consultation.

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