on anonymisation

An article in the New York Times covering a recent publication in Nature Communications on the ability to identify 99.98% of Americans from almost any dataset with fifteen covariates. And mentioning the French approach of INSEE, more precisely CASD (a branch of GENES, as ENSAE and CREST to which I am affiliated), where my friend Antoine worked for a few years, and whose approach is to vet researchers who want access to non-anonymised data, by creating local working environments on the CASD machines  so that data does not leave the site. The approach is to provide the researcher with a dedicated interface, which “enables access remotely to a secure infrastructure where confidential data is safe from harm”. It further delivers reproducibility certificates for publications, a point apparently missed by the New York Times which advances the lack of reproducibility as a drawback of the method. It also mentions the possibility of doing cryptographic data analysis, again missing the finer details with a lame objection.

“Our paper shows how the likelihood of a specific individual to have been correctly re-identified can be estimated with high accuracy even when the anonymized dataset is heavily incomplete.”

The Nature paper is actually about the probability for an individual to be uniquely identified from the given dataset, which somewhat different from the NYT headlines. Using a copula for the distribution of the covariates. And assessing the model with a mean square error evaluation when what matters are false positives and false negatives. Note that the model need be trained for each new dataset, which reduces the appeal of the claim, especially when considering that individuals tagged as uniquely identified about 6% are not. The statistic of 99.98% posted in the NYT is actually a count on a specific dataset,  the 5% Public Use Microdata Sample files, and Massachusetts residents, and not a general statistic [which would not make much sense!, as I can easily imagine 15 useless covariates] or prediction from the authors’ model. And a wee bit anticlimactic.

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