December 5th, 2011 at 10:33 UTC by Ross Anderson
I will be talking in London on Wednesday at a workshop on Anonymity, Privacy, and Open Data about the difficulty of anonymising medical records properly. I’ll be on a panel with Kieron O’Hara who wrote a report on open data for the Cabinet Office earlier this year, and a spokesman from the ICO.
This will be the first public event on the technology and policy issues surrounding anonymisation since yesterday’s announcement that the government will give wide access to anonymous versions of our medical records. I’ve written extensively on the subject: for an overview, see my book chapter which explores the security of medical systems in general from p 282 and the particular problems of using “anonymous” records in research from p 298. For the full Monty, start here.
Anonymity is hard enough if the data controller is capable, and motivated to try hard. In the case of the NHS, anonymity has always been perfunctory; the default is to remove patient names and addresses but leave their postcodes and dates of birth. This makes it easy to re-identify about 99% of patients (the exceptions are mostly twins, soldiers, students and prisoners). And since I wrote that book chapter, the predicted problems have come to pass; for example the NHS lost a laptop containing over eight million patients’ records.