The FTC will crack down on sites that claim your data is “anonymized” when it isn’t

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Many websites and apps claim that your data is “anonymized” in an effort to protect your privacy. But according to the FTC, many of these claims are often misleading.

The FTC today warned the tech industry against using claims to anonymize data when it is not true, which could be considered a deceptive business practice.

“Companies that make false claims about anonymization can expect to hear from the FTC,” says(Opens in a new window) Kristin Cohen, acting deputy director of the commission’s privacy division.

The FTC issued the warning after President Biden signed an executive order that urges the commission to protect consumer privacy when seeking reproductive health services. The president did so in response to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which has raised concerns that state prosecutors will resort to subpoenaing people’s personal data from tech companies to prosecute abortion seekers.

In a blog post, the FTC says it is committed to protecting consumer privacy, including their reproductive health information. “We will vigorously enforce the law if we uncover unlawful conduct that exploits Americans’ location, health, or other sensitive data,” Cohen wrote.

As part of this effort, the FTC is looking at how companies market their products. According to Cohen, the tech industry will often use data anonymization claims to fool users into believing their personal data is safe. This so-called anonymization usually involves removing personal identifying details from the data, such as name, phone number and address. Companies then sometimes pass the data on to marketing companies in order to monetize the information.

The problem is that the same “anonymized” or “aggregated” processes can often still expose your personal activities, particularly if the data is combined with information from other companies, whether big brands or companies. data brokerages specializing in collecting user information for Targeted Advertising.

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“These companies often profile consumers and draw conclusions about them based on the places they’ve been,” Cohen says. “The amount of information they collect is staggering.”

The FTC is particularly concerned that companies collect precise location information from users and then pass it on to third parties while claiming that the data is anonymized. “Significant research has shown that ‘anonymized’ data can often be re-identified, particularly in the context of location data,” adds Cohen. “A group of researchers(Opens in a new window) demonstrated that in some cases it was possible to uniquely identify 95% of a data set of 1.5 million individuals using four location points with timestamps. »

To quell allegations of data anonymization, Cohen says the FTC is prepared to prosecute violators, which may result in a US court imposing civil penalties.

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