Wednesday, October 22, 2014 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Passenger Privacy in the NYC Taxicab Dataset

Neustar (via Landon Fuller):

In my previous post, Differential Privacy: The Basics, I provided an introduction to differential privacy by exploring its definition and discussing its relevance in the broader context of public data release. In this post, I shall demonstrate how easily privacy can be breached and then counter this by showing how differential privacy can protect against this attack. I will also present a few other examples of differentially private queries.

There has been a lot of online comment recently about a dataset released by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. It contains details about every taxi ride (yellow cabs) in New York in 2013, including the pickup and drop off times, locations, fare and tip amounts, as well as anonymized (hashed) versions of the taxi’s license and medallion numbers. It was obtained via a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request earlier this year and has been making waves in the hacker community ever since.

The release of this data in this unalloyed format raises several privacy concerns. The most well-documented of these deals with the hash function used to “anonymize” the license and medallion numbers. A bit of lateral thinking from one civic hacker and the data was completely de-anonymized. This data can now be used to calculate, for example, any driver’s annual income. More disquieting, though, in my opinion, is the privacy risk to passengers. With only a small amount of auxiliary knowledge, using this dataset an attacker could identify where an individual went, how much they paid, weekly habits, etc. I will demonstrate how easy this is to do in the following section.


Amazing. If you said to someone “Hey, I wanted to know where you went after the cab picked you up last year, so I called up the cab company and asked them where they dropped you off and they told me”, they would be outraged at (your behavior and) the breach of privacy shown by the cab company. But the city released a dataset that allows exactly this query. What were they thinking?

Something else that could be mentioned in the linked article: if someone you were with got in a cab in 2013, and they told you where they were going, and you remember the approximate time and location, you can tell whether it was their true destination regardless of how many other people were being picked up at the time, because you don’t have to find the exact ride they took, you only have to see whether any rides went to the place they told you.

This search is even extremely resistant to the differential privacy suggested by the post’s authors. I’d be much happier simply stating that location data is not de-identifiable, and no-one should use a cab in a city that logs location data if they aren’t happy with an adversary knowing where they went.


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