Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Most Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth and postal code; New research unveils privacy risks

Date:
August 9, 2011
Source:
Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute
Summary:
There are increasing pressures for health care providers to make individual-level data readily available for research and policy making. But Canadians are more likely to allow the sharing of their personal data if they believe that their privacy is protected. A new report suggests that Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth, postal code, and gender. This means if this triad of data exists in any database, even if it has no names or other identifying information, it would be possible to determine the identity of those individuals.

There are increasing pressures for health care providers to make individual-level data readily available for research and policy making. But Canadians are more likely to allow the sharing of their personal data if they believe that their privacy is protected. A new report by Dr. Khaled El Emam, the Canada Research Chair in Electronic Health Information at the University of Ottawa and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, suggests that Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth, postal code, and gender. This means if this triad of data exists in any database, even if it has no names or other identifying information, it would be possible to determine the identity of those individuals.

The report is now available in the journal BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making.

"Most people tend to think twice before reporting their year of birth [to protect their privacy] but this report forces us all to think about the combination or the totality of data we share," said Dr. El Emam. "It calls out the urgency for more precise and quantitative approaches to measure the different ways in which individuals can be re-identified in databases -- and for the general population to think about all of the pieces of personal information which in combination can erode their anonymity."

The research study used a sizable Montreal-based population. The provincial health insurance claims database of Quebec holds demographic information on all citizens that have health insurance. Because it is publicly financed insurance, it effectively captures the whole population. For the purpose of the investigation, only date of birth, gender and full postal code data were obtained.

Using only the postal codes, the proportion of individuals who are unique is significant. When the full date of birth is used together with the full postal code, then approximately 97% of the population are unique with only one year of data. When the full date of birth and a multi-year residential trail are considered, then almost 100% of the population is unique. Reducing the granularity of the postal code to 1 character together with the full date of birth does reduce the proportion uniqueness considerably.

"The findings are important because they offer yet another onion skin to peel back in the overarching dialogue about individual privacy rights. We need to continuously evaluate these risks to privacy, and put in place measures to protect anonymity, whether technological or policy-based. Failure to do so will result in a public unwilling for their health data to be used for secondary purposes, such as health research," said Dr. El Emam. "Take for example, if only a three character postal code is combined with the full date of birth, close to 80% of the population is unique -- or easily identifiable. I suspect this will surprise most people."

This work was done in collaboration with McGill University in Montreal and was partially funded by GeoConnections program of Natural resources Canada.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Khaled El Emam, David Buckeridge, Robyn Tamblyn, Angelica Neisa, Elizabeth Jonker, Aman Verma. The re-identification risk of Canadians from longitudinal demographics. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 2011; 11 (1): 46 DOI: 10.1186/1472-6947-11-46

Cite This Page:

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. "Most Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth and postal code; New research unveils privacy risks." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 August 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110808104616.htm>.
Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. (2011, August 9). Most Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth and postal code; New research unveils privacy risks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110808104616.htm
Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute. "Most Canadians can be uniquely identified from their date of birth and postal code; New research unveils privacy risks." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110808104616.htm (accessed October 21, 2014).

Share This



More Computers & Math News

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Japanese Scientists Unveil Floating 3D Projection

Japanese Scientists Unveil Floating 3D Projection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 20, 2014) Scientists in Tokyo have demonstrated what they say is the world's first 3D projection that floats in mid air. A laser that fires a pulse up to a thousand times a second superheats molecules in the air, creating a spark which can be guided to certain points in the air to shape what the human eye perceives as an image. Matthew Stock reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Apple Enters Mobile Payment Business

Apple Enters Mobile Payment Business

AP (Oct. 20, 2014) Apple is making a strategic bet with the launch of Apple Pay, the mobile pay service aimed at turning your iPhone into your wallet. (Oct. 20) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Apple Pay Goes Live

Apple Pay Goes Live

Reuters - Business Video Online (Oct. 20, 2014) Apple launches an ambitious new mobile service, Apple Pay, which aims to change the way consumers pay for goods and services, doing away with cash and traditional credit cards. Jeanne Yurman reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Google To Protect Against Piracy ... At A Cost

Google To Protect Against Piracy ... At A Cost

Newsy (Oct. 20, 2014) Google is changing its search-engine results to protect content producers from piracy — for a price. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins