Perceived anonymity

September 16, 2009

“Mr. X lives in ZIP code 02138 and was born July 31, 1945.”

Latanya Sweeney, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, was able to determine, using those three details from an anonymized medical record, that Mr. X was in fact William Weld, governor of Massachusetts in the 1990s.

Moreover,

Gender, ZIP code, and birth date feel anonymous, but […] the combination of (gender, ZIP code, birthdate) was unique for about 87% of the U.S. population. 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.

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