What information is “personally identifiable”?
A medical record includes data that Mr. X lives in ZIP code 02138 and was born July 31, 1945. Sounds like Mr. X is pretty anonymous, right?
Not if you’re Latanya Sweeney, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who showed in 1997 that this information was enough to pin down Mr. X’s more familiar identity — William Weld, the governor of Massachusetts throughout the 1990s.
Gender, ZIP code, and birth date feel anonymous, but such data is unique for about 87% of the U.S. population. That is, if you live in the United States, there’s an 87% chance that you don’t share all three of these attributes with any other U.S. resident. After narrowing the potential identify of the person, one can use additional data sources, such as voter registration records, property records, and other online sources, to “bootstrap” to then determine the person’s name and address.
Contemporary privacy rules and debates center on the notion of “personally identifiable information” (PII). PII is information that identifies a particular person, typically by name and address, and such PII data is considered more sensitive than information that does not. For example,
- Federal health privacy laws use “individually identifiable health information” about a patient as a basis for the category called Protected Health Information (PHI);
- Federal telecommunications privacy regulations use “individually identifiable information” about a subscriber as a basis for the category called Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI); and
- Federal financial privacy laws, the EU Data Protection Directive, and state privacy laws use similar concepts for categorizing PII data.
In each of the above categories, some data deemed “personally identifiable” or “individually identifiable” are to receive increased protections in order to protect the identity of an individual.
However, research by Prof. Sweeney and others demonstrates that surprisingly many facts, including those that seem quite innocuous, neutral, or “common”, actually may be used to identify the individual. Privacy law is not keeping up with technical reality, and if your information is available online, you have likely been identified and profiled (what better way to market, then by knowing who a buyer might be).
So, what type of data is mined to identify and profile you? Demographic data, your search terms; your purchase habits; your preferences or opinions about music, books, or movies; and the structure of your social networks (even when the identities of your friends and contacts are not shared). As our society interacts and communicates over the world wide web, there are more and more sources that are being used to narrow down exactly who a particular record refers to. And, accordingly, you should think about the privacy consequences of uploading personal data that might have long-term ramifications of your “hobby” for online publishing (e.g., blogging, tweeting, etc.) and how this data is subsequently analyzed and associated with records to identify you.
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