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Anonymization remains a powerful approach to protecting the privacy of health information
Date:12/8/2011

OTTAWA, ON December 8, 2011 De-identification of health data has been crucial for all types of health research, but recent articles in medical and scientific literature have suggested that de-identification methods do not sufficiently protect the identities of individuals and can be easily reversed. A recent review conducted by researchers at CHEO entitled "A Systematic Review of Re-identification Attacks on Health Data" and published in PLoS ONE, did not uncover evidence to support this. "If re-identification rates were as high as some of these articles suggest, it would be worrisome," says lead author, Dr. Khaled El-Emam. "But our review did not support these claims there is no broad empirical support for a failure of anonymization."

Such a failure would have significant policy implications. For example, it may become necessary to obtain patient consent before data is released (a time-consuming undertaking), incentive to de-identify would decline, and the likelihood of breaches would increase. For this reason, Dr. El-Emam and his team conducted a review that set out to characterize known re-identification attacks on health data and compare them to attacks on other types of data, calculate the number of records correctly identified in these attacks, and assess whether the results indicate a weakness in current de-identification methods.

After identifying 14 relevant studies and analyzing them in detail, the group was unable to find convincing evidence that existing de-identification methods are not effective. Few of these attacks involved health data which is naturally protected more strenuously. Secondly, many of the attacks were on small databases with large confidence intervals around their success rates. Most importantly, the majority of re-identified data was not de-identified according to existing standards. "Of the 24 studies we examined, only six were attacks on health data and only one of these was de-identified accordi
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Contact: Adrienne Vienneau
avienneau@cheo.on.ca
613-737-7600 x4144
Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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