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Just a handful of anonymous card transactions can reveal your identity

January 31, 2015

paying by cardIn light of the fact that 70 percent of consumer spending is done electronically (Electronic Transactions Association infographic), spending habits are ominously revealing. For instance, “just four pieces of information gleaned from a shopper’s credit card transactions can be enough to pick them out from a database of anonymous credit card records,” says an M.I.T. report published in the journal Science on Thursday, January 29, and reported at

1.1 million people were “reviewed” over a three month period “in an unnamed country at an unnamed bank.” The researchers needed only four bits of secondary information about an individual’s transactions – such as location or timing of the purchase – to identify a unique purchasing pattern for 90 per cent of the people involved.

“No names, account numbers or other obvious identifiers were involved, but each transaction was time-stamped with the day of purchase and linked to a store. Once a purchasing pattern was identified, analysts were able to find the name of the credit card holder by matching their movements to other publicly available information on LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, in Twitter messages containing time and locations information, and ‘check-ins’ on social media.”

Researchers could also tell men and women apart from how long they lingered in a store, and “separate those in higher income brackets. Ultimately, we can be identified from where or when we bought a jumper or a new pair of shoes.”

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