Veraset: Another Data Event

November 22, 2021

Here is a good example of how personal data, in this case tracking data, can be used without one’s knowledge. In its article “Files: Phone Data Shared” the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that data broker Veraset provided phone location data to the US Department of Health last year as part of a free trial. The transaction was discovered by digital-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. The firm marketed the data as valuable for COVID research, but after the trial period was up the agency declined to move forward with a partnership. The data was purportedly stripped of names and other personal details and the researchers found no evidence it was misused. However, Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell writes:

“[Foundation technologist Bennett Cyphers] noted that Veraset’s location data includes sequences of code, known as ‘advertising identifiers,’ that can be used to pinpoint individual phones. Researchers have also shown that such data can be easily ‘de-anonymized’ and linked to a specific person. Apple and Google announced changes earlier this year that would allow people to block their ID numbers from being used for tracking. Veraset and other data brokers have worked to improve their public image and squash privacy concerns by sharing their records with public health agencies, researchers and news organizations.”

Amidst a pandemic, that tactic just might work. How do data brokers get this information in the first place? We learn:

“Data brokers pay software developers to include snippets of code in their apps that then sent a user’s location data back to the company. Some companies have folded their code into games and weather apps, but Veraset does not say which apps it works with. Critics have questioned whether users are aware that their data is being shared in such a way. The company is a spinoff of the location-data firm SafeGraph, which Google banned earlier this year as part of an effort to restrict covert location tracking.”

Wow, banned by Google—that is saying something. Harwell reports SafeGraph shared data with the CDC during the first few weeks of the pandemic. The agency used that data to track how many people were staying home for its COVID Data Tracker.

App users, often unwittingly, agree to data sharing in those opaque user agreements most of us do not read. The alternative, of course, is to deprive oneself of technology that is increasingly necessary to operate in today’s world. It is almost as if that were by design.

Cynthia Murrell November 22, 2021


One Response to “Veraset: Another Data Event”

  1. Data Geek on February 4th, 2022 2:32 pm

    The CEO of Veraset is one of the creepiest people I’ve ever seen speak at an event. It’s clear that the company has no respect for people’s data!

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