This week in data – 13th September

The massive Equifax breach which exposed the personal and financial details of more than 140 million Americans has revealed a huge range of problems – not the least of which being America’s obsession with social security numbers.

That’s the take according to Wired, which argues that the SSN – used by Americans for decades to apply for jobs, get home loans and apply for welfare benefits – is something of a volcano waiting to erupt.

“The SSN is used for purposes entirely unrelated to its original purpose. That almost always leads to problems,” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Wired.

In the digital age, the SSN has become a holy grail for hackers hoping to commit identity theft. The fact the use of SSNs has grown so much – and expanded into new areas – makes the risk of that digital theft all the more serious.

So what’s the solution? A combination of biometrics, passwords and individual codes to replace the widespread use of social security numbers – and Wired suggests different industries like healthcare could adopt their own solutions.

But others have more dramatic views.

“The whole SSN as identifier regime needs to be scrapped,” Eduard Goodman, global privacy officer at the identity theft protection firm CyberScout says in the piece.

Such a change would have a massive impact on the way Americans live their day to day lives – and would signal that digital threats are finally forcing decades-old processes to adapt for a new era.

Meanwhile, Australians have been caught up in the breach as well. Equifax doesn’t just control the details of Americans – it has 800 million records from people all over the world, including some Australians.

“Please be assured that we have found no evidence that personal information of consumers in Australia or New Zealand has been impacted by the US cybersecurity incident,\” the company tweeted last week.

That hasn’t stopped Australians from speaking out. Independent security analyst Troy Hunt told the ABC he feels Equifax should have disclosed the cyberattack earlier – after reports emerged that executives knew of the breach a while before an announcement was made.

“The problem with delaying that long is that once an organisation knows that their customers have been exposed, we really need to let these people know as soon as possible.”The Equifax breach comes after a string of reports and recommendations from Australian government officials about security back home.

Recently, the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra told the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee that the message provided by the Government during the recent Medicare card data controversy was “confusing and often contemptible”.

In other news:

Adjusting pricing based on online demand is nothing new – but now a train ticket app is using data to find out when passenger levels will increase substantially. According to Engadget, the Trainline app uses “billions of data points” to figure out when demand will rise. Historical pricing trends, customer journey searches and other points are pushed to the app to figure out how prices will change as the time before a trip becomes shorter. Trainline is the United Kingdom’s biggest independent ticket retailer. Such a change indicates yet another way data is taking over the everyday act of commerce.

Also in transport, a start-up in the United States wants to help governments become smarter with their transport information – and it’s attracting huge attention.

Teralytics uses a platform that is specifically built to understand and answer questions about mobility, ranging from Uber data to bike-sharing services. Governments need powerful tools to prepare for all sorts of disruption in transport like autonomous cars, the company argues – and this platform can help them prepare for that future.

“There’s a whole technology shift happening in how we move around, and how we organise cities, and this shift needs to be understood and modeled and designed right,” co-founder Gerog Polzer told TechCrunch.

Worth a read:

Big data careers are still on a roll. The Seattle Times reports that university courses about data are “bursting at the seams”, and with good reason: the rising number of ways we interact with data everyday is driving huge interest.

Until next week.

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