Researchers can ID anonymous Twitterers

They have discovered a way to identify people using supposedly anonymous data from social networks, phone call databases

Web sites that strip personally identifiable information about their users and then share that data may be compromising their users' privacy, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

They took a close look at the way anonymous data can be analyzed and have come to some troubling conclusions. In a paper set to be delivered at an upcoming security conference, they showed how they were able to map out the connections on public social networks such as Twitter and Flickr. They were then able to identify people who were on both networks by looking at the many connections surrounding their network of friends. The technique isn't 100 percent effective, but it may make some users uncomfortable about whether they should allow their data to be shared in an anonymous format.

Web site operators often share data about users with partners and advertisers after stripping it of any personally identifiable information such as names, addresses or birth dates. Arvind Narayanan and fellow researcher Vitaly Shmatikov found that by analyzing these "anonymized" data sets, they could identify Flickr users who were also on Twitter about two-thirds of the time, depending on how much information they have to work with.

"A lot of the time people will share information online and they'll expect that they are anonymous," Narayanan said in an interview. But if their identity can be ascertained on one social network, its possible to find out who they are on some other network, or at least make a "strong guess," he said.

They do this not just by looking at one person's immediate circle of friends, but by analyzing the patterns in the connections between all friends on the social network. "The more of a person's network you can map out, the easier it gets to de-anonymize someone in the future, wherever they might go," he said.

In 2006, hoping to give search researchers a useful tool, AOL released a database of more than 650,000 user search records. Although this data was scrubbed, it didn't take long for the New York Times to identify one user based on her search queries, showing how supposedly anonymous data could be used to identify people.

The technique described by the University of Texas researchers could be used by government agencies looking to do surveillance or by online marketers or even scammers who want to target people with their messages. And it doesn't only apply to social networks. This method could be used to identify users in databases of phone calls too, the researchers say.

Narayanan and Shmatikov used similar techniques two years ago to show how they could identify Netflix users by comparing the anonymous movie rating data released by Netflix with publicly available reviews posted to the Internet Movie Database.

The research also has implications for privacy policies on social networks, which share information on users, but with personally identifiable information such as names removed. According to Narayanan and Shmatikov, current techniques simply do not make people anonymous.

"Social-network operators should stop relying on anonymization as the 'get out of jail' card insofar as user privacy is concerned," they write on their Web site. "They should inform users when their information is disclosed to third parties, even if this information has been anonymized, and give them the opportunity to opt out."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags privacytwitter

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Robert McMillan

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?