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There has been a lot of debate recently about the use of anonymized data and whether data that is cleansed of personally identifiable information is truly anonymous in nature. There have been numerous out-of-the-ordinary privacy breaches lately, from Google to TomTom and some states are getting so restrictive on data that California isn’t even allowing zip code to be collected and stored anymore.

Google’s faux pas regarding Street View data could be positioned as a fairly innocent event by their management but there are those that believe Google was looking for things they shouldn’t have been. But TomTom’s recent misstep is a giant leap from being acceptable and should more fully open the debate on the use of anonymous data.

The TomTom One in-car navigation system.

Image via Wikipedia

If you haven’t heard, TomTom, a company that sells GPS Navigation devices, was recently found to have sold customer travel data to the Dutch Police. The data itself is anonymous, but after received by the police, they have aggregated the data to show areas in which most people are speeding and set up speed traps and radar-equipped cameras. In effect, TomTom used customer-generated data to help the Police take extra money from their customers. Oh, and they made a few bucks off of it, too.

When is anonymized data too personal to sell? It’s my opinion that whenever data is sold or otherwise used for profit, the profit should not come at the expense of compromising that customer’s identity or their right to privacy. What TomTom has done is effectively used consumers to pay for the privilege of being observed by big brother.

Think about it this way: You walk into a store and strike up a conversation with a clerk. You mention that you just got a new car and tested it out at higher than average speeds on the way to the store. You briefly mentioned the route you took and that you were looking forward to the ride home. After you leave, the clerk calls his brother, who happens to be a policeman, and tells him to look out for your car on a particular stretch of road and that you will probably be driving well over the speed limit. Would that upset most people? Sure it would.

The timing of this is rather ironic given the recent discovery that iPhones collect location information. There is plenty of opportunity for companies like Apple, Garmin and TomTom to collect and use information like this to the benefit or detriment of their customers. One day mobile devices and other data collecting gadgetry may have to come with a standard Miranda-type warning: “Where you go and don’t go and how fast or slow you drive may be used against you in a court of law.” Frankly, I think Miranda Privacy Rights should state,

“You have the right to remain invisible. Any behavior you allow to be tracked by an electronic device which you own can be held against you in a court of law.”

Any time you are using a device that tracks any type of personal behavior whether it be location and speed or web site history and cookies, the potential for the data being abused is there. Hopefully companies that collect this type of personal data will think more about their customers right to privacy than the company’s right to profit. But like all rights, this comes with responsibilities: Individual users must become fluent in privacy issues and more aware of what data belongs to them and how it might be used.