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Firefox calls it ‘Private Browsing’ and Chrome calls it ‘Incognito Mode,’ but regardless, there’s a non-default operational mode for these browsers in which you sacrifice some convenience for increased privacy.

What’s odd about this is that the opposite state isn’t outwardly declared. If that’s private browsing, then what I’m doing the rest of the time must be public browsing, but who thinks of it that way? Do you, when shopping on Amazon from the solitude of your home, consider that you’re engaging in public browsing?

Yet consider for a moment if your browser (or device) advertised for you a running count of the number of people or organizations that are watching what you do. How many people do you think that is? 10? 100? You’ll have to accept that it’s greater than 1, for sure.

You might say, “it’s ok because they still don’t know who I am.” What if they did?

A recent study conducted in Europe used anonymous cell phone tracking data to identify individuals with 95% accuracy, and that’s just one set of data. There’s little doubt that with multiple data sets an entity could identify you uniquely from your online activities. This is where some definitions come in handy.

Private

  • A state of information or activity in which it is explicitly not shared with a community. Privacy requires context, i.e. private to or from whom?

Anonymous

  • Of undetermined identity, or not tied to a specific individual.

Public

  • Shared freely without restriction.

Where public and private are opposites, anonymous can be combined with either. You can have anonymous, private data, or anonymous, public data. Public private data is, of course, a breach. So what we have in this study is the de-anonymizing of previously anonymous data. It’s status as public or private is irrelevant.

Consider for a moment the times in the past where you’ve disclosed data because you were told it was anonymous. Maybe you filled out a survey, or maybe you submitted a system profile with a bug report. Now what if that data were de-anonymized? Would you still feel comfortable sharing it?

The reality is that there is so much data flowing out of your life at any given moment, anonymity is an illusion. That fact makes privacy all the more important. We tend to consider anonymity as a catch all for privacy. It’s conceptually less complex and still ensures that we’re not associated with the data as an individual. Without anonymity, we have to step up the visibility and choices around privacy. The loss of anonymity forces an important discussion around data use.

 

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