You can have your cake and eat it, just settle for a smaller cake

August 27th, 2010 by Rob Navarro

I’ve heard many times through many media the need for “balance” in the privacy of sensitive data with its utility. But how to find that balance? Who decides whether harmonious equilibrium has been achieved? How much personal harm is OK? How much protection is enough? Will it stay that way? are all questions that bedevil this approach.

Far better to turn the issue around, decide where the harm could come from and then set about minimising that. It turns out that virtually all harm flows from people being identified in the data about them when they would rather that not happen. Stop this illicit re-identification and you stop any potential harm (there is an exception to this which I’ll talk about later).

Now if one focuses on reducing all sources of illicit re-identification then the use of that sensitive data cannot be harmful and so can proceed. No balance necessary, just privacy and utility!

If you were wondering about the “smaller cake” in the title, this comes from noticing that the most effective way to reduce illicit re-identification risks is to hold less (and less sensitive) data, accessible by fewer folk for less long. No real surprises there.

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