Another example of data re-identification risk

A group of Canadian researchers have shown another example of how hard it can be to anonomize sensitive data. In this case, the researchers found that it was relatively easy to uniquely identify a person based on information that isn't usually considered to be the sort of PII that needs to be protected. Here's how they summarized what they found:

Background

The public is less willing to allow their personal health information to be disclosed for research purposes if they do not trust researchers and how researchers manage their data. However, the public is more comfortable with their data being used for research if the risk of re-identification is low. There are few studies on the risk of re-identification of Canadians from their basic demographics, and no studies on their risk from their longitudinal data. Our objective was to estimate the risk of re-identification from the basic cross-sectional and longitudinal demographics of Canadians.

Methods

Uniqueness is a common measure of re-identification risk. Demographic data on a 25% random sample of the population of Montreal were analyzed to estimate population uniqueness on postal code, date of birth, and gender as well as their generalizations, for periods ranging from 1 year to 11 years.

Results

Almost 98% of the population was unique on full postal code, date of birth and gender: these three variables are effectively a unique identifier for Montrealers. Uniqueness increased for longitudinal data. Considerable generalization was required to reach acceptably low uniqueness levels, especially for longitudinal data. Detailed guidelines and disclosure policies on how to ensure that the re-identification risk is low are provided.

Conclusions

A large percentage of Montreal residents are unique on basic demographics. For non-longitudinal data sets, the three character postal code, gender, and month/year of birth represent sufficiently low re-identification risk. Data custodians need to generalize their demographic information further for longitudinal data sets.

So the bottom line is that we need to protect all data, not just some of the data. Any other approach probably doesn't provide as much protection as you might think that it does.

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