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De-anonymization Story

This is important:

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill was general secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), effectively the highest-ranking priest in the US who is not a bishop, before records of Grindr usage obtained from data brokers was correlated with his apartment, place of work, vacation home, family members’ addresses, and more.

[…]

The data that resulted in Burrill’s ouster was reportedly obtained through legal means. Mobile carriers sold­ — and still sell — ­location data to brokers who aggregate it and sell it to a range of buyers, including advertisers, law enforcement, roadside services, and even bounty hunters. Carriers were caught in 2018 selling real-time location data to brokers, drawing the ire of Congress. But after carriers issued public mea culpas and promises to reform the practice, investigations have revealed that phone location data is still popping up in places it shouldn’t. This year, T-Mobile even broadened its offerings, selling customers’ web and app usage data to third parties unless people opt out.

The publication that revealed Burrill’s private app usage, The Pillar, a newsletter covering the Catholic Church, did not say exactly where or how it obtained Burrill’s data. But it did say how it de-anonymized aggregated data to correlate Grindr app usage with a device that appears to be Burrill’s phone.

The Pillar says it obtained 24 months’ worth of “commercially available records of app signal data” covering portions of 2018, 2019, and 2020, which included records of Grindr usage and locations where the app was used. The publication zeroed in on addresses where Burrill was known to frequent and singled out a device identifier that appeared at those locations. Key locations included Burrill’s office at the USCCB, his USCCB-owned residence, and USCCB meetings and events in other cities where he was in attendance. The analysis also looked at other locations farther afield, including his family lake house, his family members’ residences, and an apartment in his Wisconsin hometown where he reportedly has lived.

Location data is not anonymous. It cannot be made anonymous. I hope stories like these will teach people that.

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Commercial Location Data Used to Out Priest

A Catholic priest was outed through commercially available surveillance data. Vice has a good analysis:

The news starkly demonstrates not only the inherent power of location data, but how the chance to wield that power has trickled down from corporations and intelligence agencies to essentially any sort of disgruntled, unscrupulous, or dangerous individual. A growing market of data brokers that collect and sell data from countless apps has made it so that anyone with a bit of cash and effort can figure out which phone in a so-called anonymized dataset belongs to a target, and abuse that information.

There is a whole industry devoted to re-identifying anonymized data. This was something that Snowden showed that the NSA could do. Now it’s available to everyone.

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Collecting and Selling Mobile Phone Location Data

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Anomaly Six LLC that has an SDK that’s used by “more than 500 mobile applications.” Through that SDK, the company collects location data from users, which it then sells.

Anomaly Six is a federal contractor that provides global-location-data products to branches of the U.S. government and private-sector clients. The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.

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Anomaly Six was founded by defense-contracting veterans who worked closely with government agencies for most of their careers and built a company to cater in part to national-security agencies, according to court records and interviews.

Just one of the many Internet companies spying on our every move for profit. And I’m sure they sell to the US government; it’s legal and why would they forgo those sales?

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The NSA on the Risks of Exposing Location Data

The NSA has issued an advisory on the risks of location data.

Mitigations reduce, but do not eliminate, location tracking risks in mobile devices. Most users rely on features disabled by such mitigations, making such safeguards impractical. Users should be aware of these risks and take action based on their specific situation and risk tolerance. When location exposure could be detrimental to a mission, users should prioritize mission risk and apply location tracking mitigations to the greatest extent possible. While the guidance in this document may be useful to a wide range of users, it is intended primarily for NSS/DoD system users.

The document provides a list of mitigation strategies, including turning things off:

If it is critical that location is not revealed for a particular mission, consider the following recommendations:

  • Determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location.
  • Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.
  • For mission transportation, use vehicles without built-in wireless communication capabilities, or turn off the capabilities, if possible.

    Of course, turning off your wireless devices is itself a signal that something is going on. It’s hard to be clandestine in our always connected world.

    News articles.

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    Google Receives Geofence Warrants

    Sometimes it’s hard to tell the corporate surveillance operations from the government ones:

    Google reportedly has a database called Sensorvault in which it stores location data for millions of devices going back almost a decade.

    The article is about geofence warrants, where the police go to companies like Google and ask for information about every device in a particular geographic area at a particular time. In 2013, we learned from Edward Snowden that the NSA does this worldwide. Its program is called CO-TRAVELLER. The NSA claims it stopped doing that in 2014 — probably just stopped doing it in the US — but why should it bother when the government can just get the data from Google.

    Both the New York Times and EFF have written about Sensorvault.

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