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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most data brokers avoid scrutiny by saying the data they collect and sell is “anonymized,” or a summary of a lot of people's information, rather than a single individual’s data.

Yes, but: That "anonymous" data can be used to pinpoint real people, or match that data to other supposedly anonymous profiles.

  • In 2006, AOL released search histories of 657,000 anonymous Americans, hoping the data could spur new research. But those searches contained things like locations, ages and genders — ultimately linkable back to specific people.
  • Researchers like Latanya Sweeney have discovered a variety of other ways to reverse more subtle forms of information. In fact, most Americans can be identified by birthday, gender and zip code, she discovered when she led Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab.
  • Last year, researchers noticed that hashing email addresses — thought to be an anonymizing mathematical function that would turn email addresses into gibberish — could be reversed by taking lists of leaked email addresses and performing trial and error searches.
“Once released, information is hard to control. Thus, over time, the more information and data can be linked and analyzed, the higher the likelihood of being able to make sensitive inferences from it for larger groups of people."
— Alessandro Acquisti, a Carnegie Mellon Professor who has studied re-identification

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
15 mins ago - Economy & Business

Ripple CEO calls for clearer crypto regulations following SEC lawsuit

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse tells "Axios on HBO" that if his company loses a lawsuit brought by the SEC, it would put the U.S. cryptocurrency industry at a competitive disadvantage.

Why it matters: Garlinghouse's comments may seem self-serving, but his call for clearer crypto rules is consistent with longstanding entreaties from other industry players.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt will not seek re-election in 2022

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), widely seen as a member of the Republican establishment in Congress, will not run for re-election in 2022, he announced on Twitter Monday.

Why it matters: The 71-year-old senator is the No. 4-ranking Republican in the Senate, and the fifth GOP senator to announce he will not run for re-election in 2022 as the party faces questions about its post-Trump future.

58 mins ago - Health

Popular independent COVID tracker officially ends daily updates

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer group of data analysts, researchers, and journalists brought together by The Atlantic, published its final daily update on Monday — the one-year anniversary of its founding.

Why it matters: The project quickly became a vital resource for news media, academic researchers, and everyday Americans to track COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the absence of reliable and public data from the federal government.