Pluralistic: 20 Apr 2021

Originally published at: https://pluralistic.net/2021/04/21/re-identification/


Today's links



The Observatory of Anonymity (permalink)

"Wanting it badly is not enough" could be the title of a postmortem on the century's tech-policy battles. Think of the crypto wars: yeah, it would be super cool if we had ciphers that worked perfectly except when "bad guys" used them, but that's not ever going to happen.

Another area is anonymization of large data-sets. There are undeniably cool implications for a system that allows us to gather and analyze lots of data on how people interact with each other and their environments without compromising their privacy.

But "cool" isn't the same as "possible" because wanting it badly is not enough. In the mid-2010s, privacy legislation started to gain real momentum, and privacy regulators found themselves called upon to craft compromises to pass important new privacy laws.

Those compromises took the form of "anonymized data" carve-outs, leading to the passage of laws like the GDPR, which strictly regulated processing "personally identifying information" but was a virtual free-for-all for "de-identified" data that had been "anonymized."

There was just one teensy problem with this compromise: de-identifying data is really hard, and it only gets harder over time. Say the NHS releases prescribing data: date, doctor, prescription, and a random identifier. That's a super-useful data-set for medical research.

And say the next year, Addison-Lee or another large minicab company suffers a breach (no human language contains the phrase "as secure as minicab IT") that contains many of the patients' journeys that resulted in that prescription-writing.

Merge those two data-sets and you re-identify many of the patients in the data. Subsequent releases and breaches compound the problem, and there's nothing the NHS can do to either predict or prevent a breach by a minicab company.

Even if the NHS is confident in its anonymization, it can never be confident in the sturdiness of that anonymity over time.

Worse: the NHS really can't be confident in its anonymization. Time and again, academics have shown that anonymized data from the start.

Re-identification attacks are subtle, varied, and very, very hard to defend against:

https://www.cs.princeton.edu/~arvindn/publications/precautionary.pdf

Worse, they're highly automatable:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10933-3

And it's true in practice as well as in theory:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/19/opinion/location-tracking-cell-phone.html

When this pointed out to the (admittedly hard-working and torn) privacy regulators, they largely shrugged their shoulders and expressed a groundless faith that somehow this would be fixed in the future. Privacy should not be a faith-based initiative.

https://memex.craphound.com/2014/07/09/big-data-should-not-be-a-faith-based-initiative/

Today, we continue to see the planned releases of large datasets with assurances that they have been anonymized. It's common for terms of service to include your "consent" to have your data shared once it has been de-identified. This is a meaningless proposition.

To show just how easy re-identification can be, researchers at Imperial College and the Université catholique de Louvain have released The Observatory of Anonymity, a web-app that shows you how easily you can be identified in a data-set.

https://cpg.doc.ic.ac.uk/observatory/

Feed the app your country and region, birthdate, gender, employment and education status and it tells you how many people share those characteristics. For example, my identifiers boil down to a 1-in-3 chance of being identified.

(Don't worry: all these calculations are done in your browser and the Observatory doesn't send any of your data to a server)

If anything, The Observatory is generous to anonymization proponents. "Anonymized" data often include identifiers like the first half of a post-code.

You can read more about The Observatory's methods in the accompanying Nature paper, "Estimating the success of re-identifications in incomplete datasets using generative models."

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10933-3



Hawley and Taylor Greene faked their donor-surge (permalink)

After the Jan 6 insurrection, there were tons of demoralizing stories about how much pro-insurrection lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley were raising in small-dollar donations, suggesting a vast base supporting authoritarian overthrow of the US government.

But it turns out that those numbers were hugely and deliberately distorted by Taylor Greene and Hawley, as Propublica reveals in a new reporting from Isaac Arnsdorf and Derek Willis.

https://www.propublica.org/article/how-josh-hawley-and-marjorie-taylor-greene-juiced-their-fundraising-numbers

The report analyzes campaign finance disclosures from the pair and learns that they spent vast sums – $600,000 in total – renting out mailing lists from sleazy GOP operatives whose business is compiling databases of suckers who give whenever they're asked.

The cost of those donations is high even by GOP standards, where half the money donors cough up can be skimmed off by "consultants," and it echoes the tactics used by Trump to artificially goose his own fundraising figures through straight-up fraud:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/03/us/politics/trump-donations.html

The lists in this case come from one of the GOP's leading sleazemongers, Bryan G Rudnick (though his company LGM Consulting Group), who attained notoriety by spamming Jewish voters in 2008 with warnings that an Obama victory would lead to another Holocaust.

Spending a lot of money to raise a little money sounds like a losing proposition, but only if you discount the value that comes from fronting the appearance of popularity and support that comes from grossing a fortune in small-dollar donations (nevermind the net).

Hawley and Taylor Greene's fundraisers were political theater, and they worked, sending progressives into a panic at the thought of a vast groundswell of support for insurrection, and reassuring conservatives who worried that the pair were too extreme to garner support.

It was a canny – but ultimately easily discovered – ruse.



What's wrong with EU's trustbusters (permalink)

In his latest newsletter, the campaigning journalist Nick Shaxson talks with former EU Commission Chief Competition Economist Tommaso Valletti: it's an eye-opening view into how European competition policy has failed so dismally and massively.

https://thecounterbalance.substack.com/p/the-european-system-of-monopoly

Importantly, it's about the European course of the disease of corporatism, which was rooted in 1920s Austria and then made the leap to the University of Chicago where it mutated into a virulent, global plague.

The Austria-Chicago plague destroyed the "democratic theory" of fighting monopoly ("monopolies are bad because they concentrate power into too few hands") with the "consumer welfare theory" ("monopolies are only bad if they make prices go up).

This neutered competition rules in two ways: first, it ended all enforcement predicated on harms to society (as opposed to consumers). Even if a merger or other anticompetitive act was unambiguously about forcing lower wages, say, competition law no longer got a look in.

Second, though, was that it forced opponents of mergers to prove that they would result in higher prices, and it defined the standard of proof: "proof" came in the form of complex mathematical models that only pro-monopoly partisans knew how to build or interpret.

Thus Valletti describes how any objection to a monopolistic act had to clear a series of gatekeepers: high-powered law firms that briefed economists ("useful fools") on how to present the most obviously anticompetitive mergers so they'd pass muster.

These lawyers would interpose themselves between Valletti and the economist-experts – he (in his capacity as a senior economist at a regulator) would ask another economist expert for clarification and the lawyer would jump in and say, "Don't answer that."

The enablers are drawn primarily from three firms: Charles River Associates, Compass Lexecon and RBB Economics, and, until recently, there was precious little pushback from NGOs who might be able to serve as a countervaling force.

But, as Valletti notes, there's some progress, for example, an intervention by Amnesty in opposition to the (idiotic) Google-Fitbit merger. We're going to need a lot more of that, though, thanks to the timidity of EU competition regulators.

Describing this timidity, Valletti says that his former colleagues face a "stigma attached to losing cases in court, of having decisions reversed" and that this makes the reluctant to take bold measures, particularly in tech.

Echoing James Comey (who called the coterie of prosecutors who never lost a case "The Chickenshit Club" for their lack of ambition), Valletti say, "If you are not losing cases in court, you are not being ambitious enough."

Which is not to say that there aren't NGOs in the mix – there are, on the side of monopolists, in the form of Koch Network think-tankies who handwave away rigorous academic work opposing mergers ("Professor So-And-So is wrong").

What these paid shills lack in rigor they make up for in brevity and approachability – they know a judge won't read a 50-page, peer-reviewed economic paper, so they rebut it with "a glossy pamphlet with three nice pages."

When the arguments do get technical, they enter the realm of absurdity. Key to antimonopoly enforcement is "relevant market defintiion" – before you call a company a monopolist, you have to say what they monopolize.

The regulators give big companies the most amazing passes when it comes to this – for example, when Facebook was buying Instagram, it did not characterize the merger as affecting the social media market – rather, it said the "camera app" market was the one to look at.

All this market definition wrangling burns resources. To reverse this, Valletti proposes a new standard – not merely a shifting of the burden of proof that would force merging firms to prove that the merger WON'T be anticompetitive.

But also a requirement that firms prove that they can't get the same benefits without merging: "can you prove that this merger is the only way to bring these benefits?"

Valletti: "You, Google, the most almighty firm in the world, why do you need to purchase Fitbit to achieve these benefits? Can’t you do it yourself, with all the smart guys you have? And leave Fitbit on its own, or available for purchase by someone without your market power, as this will increase competition? Prove that you really cannot do it without buying Fitbit. It is beyond my comprehension. Show me. And leave Fitbit on its own, or available for purchase by someone without your market power, as this will increase competition? Prove that you really cannot do it without buying Fitbit. It is beyond my comprehension. Show me."



Some thoughts on GWB's call for truth in politics (permalink)

Some reflections on former President George W Bush's remarks on the Today Show, that "What's really troubling is how much misinformation there is and the capacity of people to spread all kinds of untruth.

https://www.businessinsider.com/george-w-bush-troubled-by-misinformation-internet-2021-4

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Seriously, fuck that guy.

See also:



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Thieves discover abandoned Soviet missile silo full of cash https://web.archive.org/web/20060323094858/http://www.mosnews.com/news/2006/03/07/moneyfound.shtml

#10yrsago MPAA: “democratizing culture is not in our interest” https://torrentfreak.com/mpaa-democratizing-culture-is-not-in-our-interest-110420/

#5yrsago Printer ink wars may make private property the exclusive domain of corporations https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2016/04/eff-asks-supreme-court-overturn-dangerous-ruling-allowing-patent-owners-undermine

#5yrsago VW offers to buy back 500K demon-haunted diesels https://www.reuters.com/article/us-volkswagen-emissions-usa-idUSKCN0XH2CX

#5yrsago Why Internet voting is a terrible idea, explained in small words anyone can understand https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abQCqIbBBeM

#5yrsago Why is Congress so clueless about tech? Because they fired all their experts 20 years ago https://www.wired.com/2016/04/office-technology-assessment-congress-clueless-tech-killed-tutor/

#5yrsago Kindle Unlimited is being flooded with 3,000-page garbage books that suck money out of the system https://consumerist.com/2016/04/20/amazon-unintentionally-paying-scammers-to-hand-you-1000-pages-of-crap-you-dont-read/

#1yrago Phishers deploy fake contact-tracing warnings https://pluralistic.net/2020/04/21/all-in-it-together/#co-evolution



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Luc Rocher (https://rocher.lc/), Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/).

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. RESEARCH PHASE
  • A short story about consumer data co-ops. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results https://craphound.com/news/2021/03/28/past-performance-is-not-indicative-of-future-results/
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla

On deanonymisation - I keep poking fun of ‘anonymous’ surveys at work that ask which site we’re based at. 1/3 of our workforce are at this site, so once you have grade, profession and binned years in service, you’ve also got me, uniquely.

fake donors:
The consultant fees are reported in donation totals for JH and MTG?

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