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Innocuous data points can be combined to derive a revealing look at your life. Photo: Manu Fernandez / AP

The privacy debate tends to focus on how big companies handle "private" information like Social Security Numbers, credit histories, financial transactions and medical records—tangible info that can easily be used to get a peek at your life.

Intimate data: But according to University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Michael Kearns, the most valuable data is "intimate" data.

  • That includes opinions, attitudes, beliefs and moods that aren't written down anywhere, but can be inferred from your online behavior — the posts you like on Facebook, the photos you share, the videos you watch, the items you buy on Amazon, your search queries, your location, etc.
  • Advances in machine learning, deep learning and neural networks is making it easier to see patterns across raw data. That means otherwise innocuous data points can be combined to derive a revealing look at your life.
  • "The most valuable data can't be measured in bits," Kearns said Tuesday at an AT&T-hosted privacy event in DC. Companies that have access to this information "can make all kinds of inferences about you and your life circumstances that you may not even know yourself."

Machine learning: Kearns says policymakers need to consult machine learning engineers, who have a detailed view of how data is being linked together. The FTC is interested in including those technologists in its policy discussions and is keeping an eye on developments in the data analytics and artificial intelligence areas, said Maneesh Mithal, associate director of the FTC's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

Our thought bubble: Even though a lot of tech and telecom companies say it's in their best interest to be transparent with customers about how their data is used, most people don't have a way to fully understand how their data is being pieced together and what these companies really know about them as a result.That's helping to drive a push for more awareness of data practices, even if privacy regulation — at least in the U.S. — is still pretty far off.

Go deeper

Big European soccer teams announce breakaway league

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) after striking the ball during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Liverpool F.C. and Real Madrid at Anfield in Liverpool, England, last Wednesday. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

12 of world soccer's biggest and richest clubs announced Sunday they've formed a breakaway European "Super League" — with clubs Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona Real Madrid, Juventus and A.C. Milan among those to sign up.

Why it matters: Britain and Italy's prime ministers are among those to express concern at the move — which marks a massive overhaul of the sport's structure and finances, and it effectively ends the decades-old UEFA Champions League's run as the top tournament for European soccer.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats settling on 25% corporate tax rate

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The universe of Democratic senators concerned about raising the corporate tax rate to 28% is broader than Sen. Joe Manchin, and the rate will likely land at 25%, parties close to the discussion tell Axios.

Why it matters: While increasing the rate from 21% to 25% would raise about $600 billion over 15 years, it would leave President Biden well short of paying for his proposed $2.25 trillion, eight-year infrastructure package.

GOP pivot: Big business to small dollars

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Republican leaders turned to grassroots supporters and raked in sizable donations after corporations cut them off post-Jan. 6.

Why it matters: If those companies hoped to push the GOP toward the center, they may have done just the opposite by turning Republican lawmakers toward their most committed — and ideologically driven — supporters.