Why and How to Reclaim Your Name (analysis, infographic)

Written by David Michaelis

As companies take a page from the NSA and use re-identification techniques to learn more about you, there’s a move to help you reclaim your name. Deep dive.

aNewDomain.net — Companies are sharing and selling your data the way the NSA shares it with the CIA, FBI and DEA. Data re- identification — for example, the matching of voting records with census data — is already happening.

Now imagine a third party routinely matching your medical data with the information on your mobile device. It’s not a far-fetched idea. Data brokers are already constantly calculating and triangulating your credit score,  major life events, email addresses and so on. Take a look at the infographic profile below. Bottom line: Your personal life and the data it generates is worth a lot of money. No wonder the advertising industry is so concerned we’ll all become conscious of our data and its constant, relentless monetization.

Even the latest NSA spying allegations are bugging Madison Avenue. One ad giant exec, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, told The Wall Street Journal that “allegations the U.S. tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s cellphone could have serious consequences for the image of the U.S. and commercial ramifications for the advertising industry, where data on consumer behavior is playing an increasingly crucial role.”

Data can convert anonymity to a name

Today, ample evidence exists of a re-identification industry.

It’s an industry that exploits methods such as multiple queries on a single database or linking the data in one database with that in another database, usually containing data that is publicly available online. There is also de-identification. But efforts to de-identify personal data, such as scrubbing or aggregating certain data fields, degrade the utility of the data for future use.

The result? Strictly technical de-identification is increasingly easy. Though it is close to impossible to completely anonymize all data sets, there are movements afoot to spur de-identification and to help people reclaim their names. The Federal Trade Commission has asked companies to not spend money on cycled re-identification, and it has published a full “Reclaim Your Name” statement  well worth reading.  FTC Commissioner Julie Brill posted it earlier this year June 2013.

The challenge

“The final big challenge of big data that I would like to discuss,” says Brill, “is one that I’ve been assured by many of its proponents I shouldn’t strain too hard to solve … that of predictive analytics attaching its findings to individuals.” The FTC’s Brill continued:

Most data brokers and advertisers will tell you they are working with de-identified information, that is, data stripped of a name and address. And that would be great if we didn’t live in a world where more people know us by our user names than our given ones. Our online tracks are tied to a specific smartphone or laptop through UDIDs, IP addresses, ‘fingerprinting’ and other means. Given how closely our smartphones and laptops are associated with each of us, information linked to specific devices is, for all intents and purposes, linked to individuals.”

Many corporations have yet to come to grips with the privacy issues surrounding the use of big data. Sure, in data mining, companies run the risk of ruining their reputations. But commercial surveillance isn’t going away. And what are the chances, realistically, of commercial data re-identification and other mining techniques ever becoming non-invasive tools?

For a good example of this, look no further than the Kinetic Camera. Consumer watchdog Ralph Nader offered up his take recently on just  how invasive facial recognition has become:

Image Credit: Wired

The Washington Post recently reported that Mondelez International, the company behind snack brands like Chips Ahoy and Ritz, has plans to deploy electronic camera sensors in snack food shelves to collect shopper data,” says Nader. “These ‘smart shelves’ can scan and save a customer’s facial structure, age, weight and even detect if they picked something up off the shelf. The device can then use that gathered data to target the consumers with ‘personalized ads.’ ”

For example, at the checkout line, a video screen might offer you 10 percent off the box of cookies you picked up but ultimately chose not to purchase. The Post continues: “The company expects the shelf to help funnel more of the right products to the right consumers, and even convince undecideds to commit to an impulse buy.”

The smartshelf builds on the Microsoft “Kinect” camera technology, which has the ability to scan and remember faces, detect movement and even read heartbeats. Microsoft developed the Kinect camera as a video game control device for the home. In light of Microsoft’s reported connection to the NSA PRISM data gathering program, you’ve got to wonder why would anyone willingly bring such a sophisticated spy cam into their living room?

Maybe people don’t know better. Helping people know better is the traditional charge of the FTC. Enter FTC commissioner Julie Brill.

Reclaim Your Name Initiative by commissioner Julie Brill

“There is no reason that big data cannot coexist with an effective Do Not Track  mechanism and with a system that empowers consumers to make real choices about how their private information will be used,” says Brill.

“The ability to claim your name — or, in the case of  big data, to Reclaim Your Name — is as American as mom and apple pie,” Brill adds. “I can’t believe  consumers will give that up easily, even for all the convenience, entertainment and wonder that cyberspace currently has on offer. And I want to believe that industries currently fueled by big data will join together to help consumers reclaim their names.”

Let us know what you think about commercial data surveillance, data re-identification and de-identification and the FTC’s movement to help Americans reclaim their names. And check out the infographic below.



  • I doubt that there is way to be “out of the database”. For instance, the future of medicine will require Doctors to collaborate with other Doctors who are specialists regarding our health. That database will come from us through our smart phones. All of our genetic info as well as our health history will be available to us on our phones through various apps. This will help solve a lot of unnecessary medical discrepancies. The facts need to be shared. I believe technology will offer just as much goodness as it can, but some of it will be used against people in unfortunate ways. I suppose as usual one must take the good with the bad.

    • great insight,but legally it can not saty as a free for all as it is now. Data Brokers know no ethical and legal limits.
      where there is an open field,it will be abused. teh abused can be limited as the commissioner of FTC shows.