Little Risk of Re-Identification through Health Data

Little Risk of Re-Identification through Health Data

Contact: Amy Smorodin
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May 25, 2011 – Properly anonymized health data pose little risk of patient identification, state Jane Yakowitz and Daniel Barth-Jones in “The Illusory Privacy Problem in Sorrell v. IMS Health,” published today by the Technology Policy Institute. Moreover, if the Department of Health and Human Services were to abandon the distinction between personally identifiable and anonymized data (as the Federal Trade Commission has done in its recent report) “the result would be nothing short of disastrous for health care improvements and medical research,” according to the authors.

In the paper, Yakowitz, Visiting Assistant Professor at Brooklyn Law School, and Barth-Jones, Assistant Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Columbia University, discuss privacy issues surrounding the case of Sorrell v. IMS Health, which is currently before the Supreme Court. The case challenges a Vermont law limiting the dissemination and use of anonymized prescription data for the purposes of marketing to physicians. Some privacy advocates have claimed in amicus filings that the use of anonymized data puts confidential patient information at risk because the patients can be re-identified. Through careful analysis of de-anonymation techniques and literature, the authors show that this risk is extremely small. “Data properly anonymized under the requirements of HIPAA are quite robust against re-identification attacks,” they explain.

Yakowitz and Barth-Jones warn that if the Supreme Court abandons the distinction between personally identifiable information and properly anonymized data, the privacy gains would be trivial while the impact on research would be great.

The Illusory Privacy Problem in Sorrell v. IMS Health,” is available on the TPI website.

The Technology Policy Institute

The Technology Policy Institute is a non-profit research and educational organization that focuses on the economics of innovation, technological change, and related regulation in the United States and around the world. More information is available at https://techpolicyinstitute.org/.

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