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Privacy, Data & De-identification

Speech by Timothy Pilgrim to CeBIT, Sydney, May 2016

Good afternoon.

I acknowledge the Wanngal people as the traditional custodians of this land, and pay my respect to elders past and present. I also thank CeBit for inviting me to speak to you today.

Today, I’m here to discuss privacy, data, de-identification; and the opportunities these present in an Australian context.

And the opportunities of bringing these three issues together in an integrated way are, I believe, significant – for Australian Government agencies and Australian businesses.

In fact, the raw potential that big data presents to both public and private sector alike is so extraordinary that it’s a little hard to explain in words.

Yet a mathematician came close, in my view, and did so 202 years ago.

It’s with a little trepidation that I refer to the works of great pioneering mathematicians in front of a CeBit audience, but those amongst you with a taste for the classics may recall “LaPlace’s Demon”.

This was Pierre-Simon LaPlace’s famous treatise on determinism, which is often crudely summarised as the theory that if one could know the location and velocity of every object in the universe at a given point, one could predict the rest of history.

If that crude summation of LaPlace sounds suspiciously like history is throwing down a gauntlet to the power of big data analytics, then his actual words are even more prophetic:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.

If an intellect could know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, and if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, then nothing would be uncertain.

The future, just like the past, would be present before its eyes.[1]

Today we might simply quip that past metadata is the best predictor of future metadata.

But either way, the power of data-based prediction, which LaPlace could only theorise about, is now a reality.

Big data has changed the way we identify trends and challenges, as well as identify opportunities. As a result, it has the potential to bring about enormous social and economic benefits.

Trends drawn from big data can be used to personalise individuals’ experiences, to target products and services, to improve health management, crime prevention, and emergency responses.

We’ve seen big data used not only to predict natural disasters, like flooding and earthquakes, but also to respond to them.

In 2015 the Humanitarian Data Exchange was used to help relief efforts following the Nepal earthquake. A task force of about 2,000 people from 80 countries analysed ‘millions of Nepal-related tweets to build several databases’. This data helped produce quick-and-dirty maps to coordinate efforts by the government, the UN, and NGOs.[2]

And as the amount of data is growing exponentially, that potential can only increase.

As the Productivity Commission’s recent Issues Paper explains, 5 billion gigabytes of data was the amount of data generated worldwide in the year 2002. We now generate it every two days.

And when I say “we”, I mean it truly is a global community effort.

When we wake up, we check Twitter or Facebook or our emails.

Over breakfast we use our iPads to read the news.

Before work we might fit in a quick session at the gym — our Fitbit tracking our progress.

As we head off to work our smart phone pings the towers along the way.

Swiping our work pass we enter the building before logging onto our computers.

With each step we take we are, quite literally, creating more and more data – potentially revealing more and more about ourselves.

And as our digital touch points increase, and the Internet of Things becomes more and more embedded in our everyday lives, the data we create becomes increasingly valuable.

Valuable to both private and public sector alike.

The Prime Minister made this clear when he released the Australian Government Public Data Policy Statement at the end of last year.

It recognises data held by the Australian Government as a strategic national resource that holds considerable value for growing the economy, improving service delivery and transforming policy outcomes for the Nation.

This priority is reflected in the fact that the Prime Minister’s own department has established a Public Data Branch to lead data innovation across the public service.

After all, the policy and service delivery improvements that can be yielded if this national resource can be shared and built upon are immense.

Accordingly, the Productivity Commission has been tasked with looking at Data Availability and Use.

In its Issues Paper, the Commission argues that data is core to the development and delivery of most services, to paid and unpaid activities across the economy, and to better quality public policy.

Both of these key Government papers also make it clear that upholding the highest standards of data security and privacy are critical.

And I welcome this focus.

Because my Office, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, has long supported the view that public information is a national asset.

Indeed, the FOI Act, which we administer alongside the Privacy Act, explicitly describes government information as a national resource.

We understand that the potential of that resource may be best realised when data can be shared, used and built upon.

But we also understand, and hope is evident, is that this can only occur sustainably, if privacy, is integral to the equation.

Simply put, a successful data-driven economy needs a strong foundation in privacy.

Our experience and community research shows that by and large people do want their personal information to work for them, provided that they know it is working for them.

When there is transparency in how personal information is used, it gives individuals, choice and confidence that their privacy rights are being respected.

Accordingly, good privacy management and great innovation go hand in hand.

Because when people have confidence about how their information is managed, they are more likely to support the use of that information to provide better services.

In fact, their expectations often become entirely supportive.

Most people do expect organisations to use their information where it’s necessary to provide them with the services they want or to improve on those services.

They do expect law enforcement agencies to use information resources to stop crime and to keep people safe.

However, people also want to know how their information is being used, who has access to it, and what that means for them in terms of their personal identity.

Accordingly, privacy law — often misunderstood to be about secrecy, is really underpinned by transparency and accountability.

And by ensuring organisations are transparent and responsible when handling personal information, privacy management strengthens customer trust.

Building this trust is key to our big data challenges — whether sought in the form of customer confidence or political mandate.

As the Chairman of the Productivity Commission has said ‘the significant evolution in data collection and analysis seen in recent times suggests that the culture, standards and policy structures that have been applied to big data analytics may need to move out of the back room and into the showroom if community confidence and wide opportunity for innovation are to be maximised.’

And I agree.

We know from my Office’s longitudinal surveys into community attitudes to privacy, that Australians are becoming increasingly conscious of personal data issues.

The majority of Australians – 60 percent – have decided not to deal with an organisation due to concerns about how their personal information will be used. And significantly, 97 percent of Australians don’t like their personal information to be used for a secondary purpose.

This is critical to big data. Because big data projects will often involve secondary use of data.

If that data finds its source in personal information, then we have a clear dissonance between our known and understandable desire that our personal information works for us and for the purposes we explicitly provided it for vs the demonstrable innovative power of that data to improve our services and lives.

Addressing this dissonance will require a multi-pronged approach.

Part of it will lie in making the case as to how, through secondary uses, our personal information is still clearly working for our benefit, either directly or communally — and numerous research fields point to the potential to make this case.

Part of it will lie in greater security and protection of the personal information — and a determined approach to counter would-be disrupters of our national data resource — as the Government’s new Cyber Security Strategy reveals.

But part of the solution, and potentially a significant part I suggest, lies in getting de-identification right, and right such that government agencies, regulators, businesses and technology professionals have a common understanding as to what “getting it right” means.

At the moment, that common understanding is not evident.

I know, for example, that when I’ve previously spoken about precautions with anonymised data sets the result has been reporting that I’m advising to treat de-identified data as personal information.

This would be illogical advice at best, because correctly de-identified information is, by definition, no longer personal information.

To be clear, this has never been my Office’s view, but the example highlights the current haze around this issue and the need to obtain an agreed understanding.

There may well be people in this room who are thinking, “well, I understand the distinction between anonymised and de-identified just fine thank you” and I’m sure that’s true.

But as per the Productivity Commission’s point, we need to move this knowledge out of the backroom and in to the showroom in order to build public confidence in this potential privacy solution.

Because it is a potential solution.

De-identification is a smart and contemporary response to the privacy challenges of big data — using the same technology that allows data analytics to strip data sets of their personal identification potential, while retaining the research utility of the data.

When done correctly, de-identified information is no longer personal information and is therefore outside the scope of the Privacy Act.

But what does “done correctly” entail?

De-identified means de-identified in whose hands?

And in what use?

If I am the collector of the personal information, am I obliged to have regard to the re-identification potential of data in its current context, the next foreseeable context, or any context?

And what about the ability of data analytics to create entirely new and personal information — raising the prospect of an entity effectively collecting new personal information by creating it?

These are all pertinent questions, but if you think I’m going to give clear and simple answers now, then I’m afraid you are in for disappointment.

This is for a good reason. Namely, the Privacy Act is principles, not prescription, based, and ultimate answers as to compliance with it will often be bespoke to the circumstances.

This is certainly true if your preferred solution to privacy governance is de-identification. The specific changes required to your data set will arrive as the result of a risk based assessment of the data’s potential use, disclosure and re-identification prospects.

While the principles remain constant — and are already covered in our existing guidance on information sharing and de-identification — the solutions executed are often bespoke to the data and its intended use.

This is why it’s not desirable to try and provide a prescriptive, template based, tick-a-box guide to de-identification.

It is why, despite already having guidance in this space, we will be opening up consultation on renewed guidance this year.

Because it is clear from the speed at which this big data is evolving that any privacy solution which is purely regulator-driven, without the voice of industry, consumers and government agencies to inform it, will not serve our purposes here.

To be clear, the Privacy Act principles, and the accountability of my office to regulate them, are both established, clear and ongoing — but ensuring that the application of these regulatory principles is as practical as possible in real world examples, is of benefit to both regulator and regulated alike.

This was the primary point of my recent, perhaps wistful, comparison between our current national race to harness the potential of big data, and the technological pioneering of the moon race.

As was the case with that great technological goal, potential solutions to balancing the democratic, strategic and commercial benefits of big data will lie in a multi-sector co-operation.

The OAIC understands that this is an area of regulation where agreed industry terms and standards will be critical — not only to the actual efficacy of de-identification, but also to provide public confidence in it as a solution.

After all, infamous and widely publicised examples of ‘re-identification’ by white hat hackers and journalists already create an impression of de-identification as a flawed solution.

Yet on deeper analysis these are, almost exclusively, examples of so called ‘de-identifications’ that were not conducted to any known industry standards.

They are therefore not arguments against de-identification as a privacy solution, but arguments for getting it right, with agreed industry standards, checks and balances, audit and review, and quality control built in to your processes.

Because the track record of expertly de-identified data preventing data breaches is strong.

Resolving the nexus between privacy and big data is therefore a goal my office needs to reach in partnership with the sectors that are broadly represented by the people in this room; and my office will be commencing a national conversation to achieve this goal this year.

It will start shortly with the release for public consultation of new draft guidance to utilising big data in an Australian privacy law context.

This will be followed by a series of engagement opportunities with both public and private sector focus, promoted through our Privacy Professionals Network.

The purpose of our discussions will be to test our draft guidance with business, technical, legal, academic, policy and community sectors — and it is my goal that this time next year, I will speak to CeBit 2017 with a shared understanding for both businesses and agencies on de-identification as a privacy-enhancing tool.

I stress that de-identification is not the only approach available to manage the privacy dimensions of big data, but it is a one with powerful potential, when done fully and correctly.

That potential includes the ability to facilitate data sharing between agencies, unlock policy and service gains of big data innovation, and support the Internet of Things whilst protecting the fundamental human right to privacy.

That is a great prospect, one that we should realise together, and we look forward to working with you to achieve.

I hope I have conveyed to you that my office understands the great public potential of big data, as well as why integrating this with individual privacy remains critical.

But, if my bureaucratic prose has failed then, having opened with LaPlace, let me close by reflecting on the words of another prophetic soul, albeit a fictional one; Sam Seaborn, of The West Wing.

In an episode first aired in 1999 he argues that, just as the 20’s and 30’s were defined by debate on the role of government, and the 50’s and 60’s by civil rights, the arrival of the information age would place privacy as a central issue of law and government in the 21st century.

Perhaps the writers were prescient, but then our individual privacy has always been essential to our individual freedom — to our right to have autonomy as to how we shape our lives and move in the world.

And, as the ever-erudite Mr Seaborn notes; “In a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

One can say the same of course for any free and democratic nation, ours being one.

While there is great societal benefit in liberating the potential of our information assets, community confidence will be tied to transparent protection of our own individual liberty — in the form of knowing who knows what about us.

Smart privacy solutions and smart data solutions are therefore not mutually exclusive, nor elusive, but mutually supportive.

Because with public confidence obtained, the public potential of big data can be fully, and publicly, realised.

Thank you.

Footnotes

[1] Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

[2] How The Candy Crush Of Data Is Saving Lives In Nepal