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How Easy It Is To Identify Strangers With Google


Kate Klonick tells her students at St. John's University law school to deanonymize someone they come across in public. She uses that as a lesson on privacy, or how little really there is when we're in public. Professor Kate Klonick joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATE KLONICK: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So how do you deanonymize somebody?

KLONICK: Well, it's really quite easy, which is part of what I think is the scary kind of learning tool about this exercise. I told my students that they should over break - it was an optional assignment, but if they wanted to over break to, using only their phone and Google, try to figure out who a person was - their full name - just based on things that they reveal loudly in public while other people are around and things that are displayed on their clothing or bags, like monograms or a school logo.

SIMON: And this works?

KLONICK: Yes with kind of remarkable accuracy. I've had my students talking to me over break and sending me their stories about how it took them two minutes or three minutes or four minutes to have full information about the person sitting in front of them on an airplane or next to them on the subway based really on things as little as their first name and the college that was on their shirt or something like the details for picking them up from the airport. And it's just been a really wonderful exercise in how obscurity does a really poor job of masking our privacy.

SIMON: Oh, my. I mean, the implication of this could be something like, you know, you could be wearing a St. John's basketball sweatshirt, as quite a few people do, someone could call you Kate in public and you're carrying a law school book, and someone could put all that together.

KLONICK: That's exactly right. And, of course, it's harder for people who have kind of common names. But my last name, for instance, is very uncommon. And so I am - if they heard my last name and just my last name, they would be able to very easily find out who exactly I was in just a few seconds.

SIMON: Of course, in the movie version, one of your students would deanonymize somebody and discover that they're a serial killer that escaped from prison.

KLONICK: Yeah. I was thinking a nicer version is they would deanonymize someone and then maybe, like, fall in love with them on the subway train or their profile and...

SIMON: Oh, much nicer.

KLONICK: ...We'd have a wonderful romantic comedy (laughter) but sure they could of course...

SIMON: A rom-com, you're right, much better idea.

KLONICK: Yes, exactly, a fun romp through the world of privacy. But yeah, no, I think that that's exactly right, that there's a lot of things that you can find out about a person now. We know that you can find out about someone - tons of stuff - when you have their name and a few identifying details on Google. The kind of crazy part about this experiment was that it shows you that you don't even need their name necessarily. You don't even need a Social Security number, and you can do a fair amount of research on a person and find out a fair amount about their everyday lives.

SIMON: Without spoiling the end for your students, what do you want them to learn from this experience?

KLONICK: I think that what I was really trying to teach them is that we have very few laws that do this type of protection and we might not even want them but that there have to be some type of protections for privacy. And whether they come from normative understandings of how our privacy actually is protected, such as people respecting each other's privacy and obscurity in public places or not, that we have to be really conscious of those and do a little more education on some of those things if we want to create future protections, either in law or just in society in general.

SIMON: So could somebody see a tall, bearded man in an airport with a guitar and figure out that's BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music?

KLONICK: (Laughter) I don't know. I think that there - I think that anything's possible.

SIMON: St. John's University law professor Kate Klonick, thanks so much for being with us.

KLONICK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.