Saturday, September 12, 2009

Privacy and Anonymization

Professor Paul Ohm of the University of Colorado Law School recently published an important article entitled Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization. The article discusses the perils in relying on anonymization as a means to protect privacy. In today's data rich environment when individuals are constantly emitting data trails and leaving their digital fingerprints throughout cyberspace Professor Ohm argues that it is virtually impossible to anonymize data.

Professor Ohm points to recent research which found that 87% of the US population could be uniquely identified through the combination of zip code, birth data, and sex. Said in another way, 87% of US citizens do not share the same zip code, birth date, and sex with anyone else.

The take away from this article is that policy makers can no longer simply rely on labeling certain data as 'personally identifiable.' In today's digital age, all data must be treated as personally identifiable. As a result, we can no longer rely on anonymizing certain data elements to protect privacy. A new privacy protection regime must be developed because banning information sharing is not realistic.

I highly recommend this article for those students interested in learning more about anonymization and privacy.

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