De-identifying data isn’t necessarily enough to protect the privacy of individuals, according to NSW’s Chief Data Scientist.

“Anonymising data is one of the most challenging issues we face today. You can’t just strip names out. In many cases when data sets are combined, it becomes possible to re-identify individuals by cross referencing,” explained Dr Ian Oppermann, NSW Chief Data Scientist.  

Oppermann is the editor of a new report released by The Australian Computer Society (ACS) which proposes a framework to address this risk by introducing a standardised technique to ensure that the data is kept as safely for the uses intended. The report details a usable technique for anonymising data in a way that is designed to prevent reidentification and preserve privacy. 

Titled, Privacy in Data Sharing: A Guide for Business and Government, the report is the result of more than two years’ work by the ACS Data Sharing Committee, which had input from has members from state and federal governments as well as Standards Australia, the CSIRO, Microsoft, Clayton Utz, and others.

“Governments understand the benefit of releasing deidentified data to support research and to help drive industry. However, when important data sets are being considered for release, the concern is always the thought of what other data sets are out there and whether they could be combined,” Oppermann said.

“When the medical benefits data set was released in 2016, with individual records de-identified, all was fine until that data met other data. For example, if you knew that a particular individual broke their arm in Canterbury in 2014, then you could cross reference that with the medical dataset and be able to link a deidentified medical record with an individual.”

The role of data in the digital age has presented a new challenge of: how do you balance the potential for good which can be done achieved by powerful data analytics projects (like reducing the rate of led poisoning in children) with the risk of causing harm to individuals. 

ACS President Yohan Ramasundara said data sharing between businesses and governments offers tremendous potential for new smart services and for creating value.

“One of the key issues both governments and business face is how to share data safely, without compromising the privacy of individuals,” he said.

“But we have to be incredibly careful. We have to make sure we keep the social contract with our citizens to maintain their privacy.”

Last month Gartner warned that neglecting privacy could pose a very real threat to businesses. John Kost, Group Vice President, argued consumer views around privacy in the digital era are shifting they are not willing to give up security, safety or peace of mind in exchange for convenience.

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