Thursday, 5 November 2009

The database of ruin coming to your town soon.....

Time marches inexorably on and each day government bureaucracy at every level, health services, financial institutions and even retail outlets are all squirreling away information about each and every one of us in data bases both large and small.

Whenever one inquires about the safety of such databases the assurance received usually goes along the line that there is nothing to worry about - a high level of data security surrounds personally identifiable information and, it would be hard to identify individuals from those information blocs held in long-term digital storage (for comparison/research purposes) because the data has been anonymized.

However, this is apparently not the case.
Due to the large number of public databases accessible on the Internet and by application to various institutions/agencies, it really isn't all that anonymous because most information can be mined and/or manually cross-checked.
Thus potentially allowing re-identification of an individual and the information held concerning that person or family.

This is Paul Ohm Associate Professor of Law from the University of Colorado and author of the research paper Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization :

Computer scientists have recently undermined our faith in the privacy-protecting power of anonymization, the name for techniques for protecting the privacy of individuals in large databases by deleting information like names and social security numbers. These scientists have demonstrated they can often 'reidentify' or 'deanonymize' individuals hidden in anonymized data with astonishing ease. By understanding this research, we will realize we have made a mistake, labored beneath a fundamental misunderstanding, which has assured us much less privacy than we have assumed. This mistake pervades nearly every information privacy law, regulation, and debate, yet regulators and legal scholars have paid it scant attention...

In an Ars Technica post Paul Ohm is quoted as stating:

"For almost every person on earth, there is at least one fact about them stored in a computer database that an adversary could use to blackmail, discriminate against, harass, or steal the identity of him or her. I mean more than mere embarrassment or inconvenience; I mean legally cognizable harm. Perhaps it is a fact about past conduct, health, or family shame. For almost every one of us, then, we can assume a hypothetical 'database of ruin,' the one containing this fact but until now splintered across dozens of databases on computers around the world, and thus disconnected from our identity. Reidentification has formed the database of ruin and given access to it to our worst enemies."

With the Rudd Government seemingly stacked with politicians in love with the idea of big data bases and, Health Minister Nicola Roxon's e-health card (with its unique personal identifier within each chip) bearing down on ordinary citizens going quietly about their business in 2010-11, this is a problem we all need to consider carefully. As government legislation will not stop personal privacy being invaded (it can only provide mechanisms to rectify or penalise after the fact) and the hope that IT software will dam the information outflow is fast receding.

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