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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

VA first federal agency to require COVID vaccines for employees

A medical doctor gives the thumbs-up sign to a COVID-19 patient who is no longer using a respirator at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York City. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it would require its frontline health care workers to get vaccinated against the coronavirus within the next two months, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The VA is the first federal agency to mandate that employees receive the vaccine. The decision comes as cases of the Delta variant in the U.S. have increased dramatically.

4 hours ago - Health

Biden: Americans with long-COVID symptoms may qualify for disability resources

President Biden speaking in Arlington, Virginia, on July 23. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Americans experiencing long-term symptoms of COVID-19 may qualify for disability resources from the federal government, President Biden announced Monday during an event to mark the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Driving the news: The departments of Justice and Health and Human Services released new guidance Monday that categorizes “long COVID" as a physical or mental impairment, entitling people with the illness to discrimination protections under the the ADA.

Study: Get ready for many more record-shattering heatwaves

NASA computer model image of temperature departures from average on June 27 during the Pacific Northwest heat wave. (NASA Earth Observatory)

The recent deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, during which all-time temperature records were shattered by several degrees, is a prologue to what is coming across much of the U.S., Europe and Asia, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The study shows that the rate of climate change is an under-appreciated driver of extreme heat, and that today's quickening pace of warming virtually guarantees more extreme temperature records in coming decades.