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

Updated 30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 19,451,097 — Total deaths: 722,835 — Total recoveries — 11,788,665Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 2. p.m. ET: 4,968,413 — Total deaths: 161,858 — Total recoveries: 1,623,870 — Total tests: 60,415,558Map.
  3. Public health: Fauci says chances are "not great" that COVID-19 vaccine will be 98% effective.
  4. Science: Indoor air is the next coronavirus frontline.
  5. Schools: How back-to-school is playing out in the South as coronavirus rages on — Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Howard to hold fall classes online.
1 hour ago - World

What's next for Lebanon after the Beirut explosion

Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Beirut residents are still clearing rubble from streets that appear war-torn, days after a blast that shocked the country and horrified the world.

Why it matters: The explosion is likely to accelerate a painful cycle Lebanon was already living through — discontent, economic distress, and emigration.

Wolf Blitzer marks 15 years in "The Situation Room"

Wolf Blitzer on the White House beat in 1993, along with NBC's Brian Williams, CBS' Rita Braver and ABC's Brit Hume. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images H

Aug. 8, 2005 — "The Situation Room's" debut on CNN wherein the host first said: "I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in The Situation Room, where news and information from around the world arrive in one place simultaneously!"

The state of play: When the pandemic took off in the U.S. in March, Blitzer started working 7 days a week for 60+ days, until he took a Sunday off. Then he continued 7 days a week until he took a few days off.