Plenty to Hide: The toxicity of personal information in the "Big Data" age

Science & Technology
re:publica 2016


When asked about their online privacy, most people think they got nothing to hide. With my talk, I want to show that this is probably not true. To do this, I'll show a series of experiments that demonstrate how easy it is to learn interesting and sometimes very private things about people by analyzing the data trails they leave behind. I will discuss the risk of permanent de-anonymization of user data and propose technical as well as societal strategies that we can employ to protect our privacy.


Today, our computers, phones and smart devices collect more and more data about us. While some people greet this new age of “Big Data” and the “Internet of Things” with great enthusiasm, others are concerned about the implications for our privacy. However, most people find it quite hard to understand the exact implications of data collection on their privacy and therefore silently accept it as part of their digital life. Also, the companies and organizations that gather all this data about us usually have no interest to show us what exactly they can do with it as they -with good reason- fear a public outcry.

With my talk, I want to shed some light on the possible dangers of “Big Data” by discussing real-world examples of large-scale data analysis in use today and showing their implications on our lives and our privacy. Using real data sets, I will demonstrate how we can learn many interesting and often intimate things about people by using seemingly unrelated an innocuous data streams. Using this evidence, I will explain how the current “measure and keep everything” approach to data analysis can be a danger to our individual freedoms as citizens and users.

I will argue that we should not mainly think of personal data as a precious resource which we can exploit, but rather a toxic waste product that we need to handle with care and avoid producing too much in the first place. Again using real-world examples, I will demonstrate how “spilling” personal data into the wild can be dangerous, exposing us to the risk of permanent de-anonymization as the amount of leaked data about us keeps growing.

Finally, I will talk about what we can do as citizens on one side and as data analysts on the other side to handle personal data in a more responsible and beneficial way.  

Stage 2
Dienstag, 3. Mai 2016 - 15:30 bis 16:00