Study Says There's Nothing Anonymous About Anonymized Data

Most experts approve of anonymizing data — it’s one way to protect privacy and comply with GDPR. And we all value our anonymity. But those two terms are not the same, according to a new article in Nature Communications.

The authors — Luc Rocher, Julien M. Hendrickx and Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye — found that individuals can be re-identified through reverse engineering. To use a phrase coined by privacy expert Martin Abrams, data providers can easily bring together “the shadow you and the real you.”

The authors say they validated a statistical model to “quantify the likelihood for a re-identification attempt to be successful, even if the dataset is heavily incomplete.”

Applying that model, they found that “99.98% of Americans would be correctly re-identified in any dataset using 15 demographic attributes.”

And an attacker “can, using our model, correctly re-identify an individual with high likelihood even if the population uniqueness is low.” The study challenges claims that a low population uniqueness is sufficient to protect people’s privacy.”



The authors note that de-identification, “the process of anonymyzing datasets before sharing them has been the main paradigm used in research and elsewhere to share data while preserving people’s privacy."

However, “numerous supposedly anonymous data sets have recently been released and re-identified,” the report continues.

The authors conclude that “even heavily sampled anonym zed datasets are unlikely to satisfy the modern standards for anonymization set forth by GDPR and seriously challenge the technical and legal adequacy of the de-identification release-and-forget model.”


1 comment about "Study Says There's Nothing Anonymous About Anonymized Data".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, July 25, 2019 at 7:42 p.m.

    Totally agree regarding the 15 demographic attributes.   Similar to the 10 hardware attributes that will idenitify the owner/user with 99+% accuracy.

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