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Your ‘Anonymous’ Browsing Data Isn’t Actually Anonymous

Researchers said it was “trivial” to identify users and view their browsing habits in purchased ‘anonymous’ browsing data.

In August 2016, a data broker received a phone call from a woman named Anna Rosenberg, who worked for a small startup in Tel Aviv. Rosenberg claimed she was training a neural network, a type of computing architecture inspired by the human brain, and needed a large set of browsing data to do so. The startup she was working for was well-funded and purchasing the data wouldn’t be a problem. But given the number of brokers out there, Rosenberg wasn’t going to purchase the browsing data from just anyone. She wanted a free trial.

A day after originally soliciting the data broker, Rosenberg received a phone call. A salesperson representing the broker gave Rosenberg the credentials she’d need to access the browsing data that was part of her free trial. The broker agreed to allow Rosenberg access to the complete browsing history of 3 million German users for one month, with the stipulation that for a part of this period, some of the browsing data would be collected live (that is, refreshed every day or so).

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