How "anonymous" wifi data can still be a privacy risk

Oct 9, 2017 · techcrunch.com

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The thorny issue of tracking of location data without risking individual privacy is very neatly illustrated via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking London’s transport regulator to release the "anonymized" data-set it generated from a four week trial last year when it tracked metro users in the UK capital via wi-fi nodes and the MAC address of their smartphones as they traveled around its network.

At the time TfL announced the pilot it said the data collected would be "automatically de-personalised". Its press release further added that it would not be able to identify any individuals.

It said it wanted to use the data to better understand crowding and "collective travel patterns" so that "we can improve services and information provision for customers".

(Though it’s since emerged TfL may also be hoping to generate additional marketing revenue using the data — by, a spokesman specifies, improving its understanding of footfall around in-station marketing assets, such as digital posters and billboards, so not by selling data to third parties to target digital advertising at mobile devices.)

Press coverage of the TfL wi-fi tracking trial has typically described the collected data as anonymized and aggregated.

Those Londoners not wanting to be tracked during the pilot, which took place between November 21 and December 19 last year, had to actively to switch off the wi-fi on their devices. Otherwise their journey data was automatically harvested when they used 54 of the 270 stations on the London Underground network — even if they weren’t logged onto/using station wi-fi networks at the time.

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