Computer scientists in the US have discovered ways to “re-identify” the names of people included in supposedly anonymous datasets.
In one example, a movie rental company released an anonymous list of film-ratings taken from its 500,000 subscribers. Using a statistical “de-anonymization” technique, the academics were able to identify individuals and their film preferences.
The discovery raises concerns about how safe it is to release personal information — such as medical records or mobile phone data — even if details such as names or national insurance numbers have been removed. There are fears the information could be accessed by criminals.
The discovery has led British researchers to raise the issue in a report they are writing for the European commission. Ian Brown, of the Oxford Internet Institute and a co-author, said the example of the film list was relatively trivial.
“But this raises concerns for more sensitive data such as medical records,” he said. “Epidemiologists say they could do interesting research if they had access to more anonymous data. This shows it is difficult to do that in a way that can’t be reversed.”
One concern is that criminals could identify individuals through mobile phone data and use the information to track people’s movements and find out when they are away from home.
“That is one worry. Other people who you might worry about accessing that information include employers, insurers or the government. There are a whole range of potential users,” Brown said.
Experts say the discovery that lists can be “de-anonymized” needs to be included in the debate about how information is released and where to draw the line. But they also highlight the benefits of letting researchers and others access large datasets.
Last week Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, launched a new site — data.gov.uk — on which users will be able to access information on crime rates, exam results, house prices and more.
“They are talking about non-personal data,” Brown said. “But another thing they are looking at releasing is crime reports down to street level. You have to think about how people might be able to link that back to individuals.”
William Heath, founder of Ctrl-Shift, which specializes in personal data, said: “If you take it in the light of Friday’s news about data.gov.uk, the government has clearly done something really good to make public data available. Now they need a more enlightened approach to personal data, but you can’t simply say anonymized data can be safely made public because it is clear how hard it is truly to anonymize data.”
‘OBVIOUS DIFFERENCE’: The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been researching bat coronaviruses to trace the SARS pathogen, which is 80 percent similar to SARS-CoV-2 The Chinese virology institute in the city where COVID-19 first emerged has three live strains of bat coronavirus on-site, but none match the new contagion wreaking havoc around the world, its director has said. Scientists think COVID-19 — which first emerged in Wuhan and has killed more than 340,000 people worldwide — originated in bats and could have been transmitted to people via another mammal. However, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology told state broadcaster China Global Television Network that claims made by US President Donald Trump and others that the novel coronavirus could have escaped from the facility were
SPACE RACE: The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp mission aims to land a robotic rover and put a probe into orbit around the planet China is targeting a July launch for its ambitious Mars mission, which includes landing a remote-controlled robot on the surface of the Red Planet, the company in charge of the project has said. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in its space program in an effort to catch up with its rival, the US, and affirm its status as a major world power. The Mars mission is among a number of new space projects China is pursuing, including putting Chinese astronauts on the moon and having a space station by 2022. Beijing had been planning the Mars mission for some time this year,
China is poised to enshrine individuals’ rights to privacy and personal data for the first time, a symbolic first step as more of the country of 1.4 billion people becomes digitized — and more vulnerable to leaks and hacks. The legislation is part of China’s first civil code, a sweeping package of laws that is being deliberated during the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, which began on Friday after a delay of more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent draft, an individual has a right to privacy and to have their personal information protected. Data
India has moved additional troops along its northern border as it prepares for an extended conflict with China, after several rounds of talks failed to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals. China has already placed about 5,000 soldiers and armored vehicles within its side of the disputed border in the Ladakh region, an Indian government official said, asking not to be identified, citing rules. India is adding a similar number of troops as well as artillery guns along the border to fend off the continuing incursions by the Chinese army, the official said. The standoff began on May 5, when troops clashed