Background: There has been growing interest in data synthesis for enabling the sharing of data for secondary analysis; however, there is a need for a comprehensive privacy risk model for fully synthetic data: If the generative models have been overfit, then it is possible to identify individuals from synthetic data and learn something new about them.
Objective: The purpose of this study is to develop and apply a methodology for evaluating the identity disclosure risks of fully synthetic data.
Methods: A full risk model is presented, which evaluates both identity disclosure and the ability of an adversary to learn something new if there is a match between a synthetic record and a real person. We term this “meaningful identity disclosure risk.” The model is applied on samples from the Washington State Hospital discharge database (2007) and the Canadian COVID-19 cases database. Both of these datasets were synthesized using a sequential decision tree process commonly used to synthesize health and social science data.
Results: The meaningful identity disclosure risk for both of these synthesized samples was below the commonly used 0.09 risk threshold (0.0198 and 0.0086, respectively), and 4 times and 5 times lower than the risk values for the original datasets, respectively.
Conclusions: We have presented a comprehensive identity disclosure risk model for fully synthetic data. The results for this synthesis method on 2 datasets demonstrate that synthesis can reduce meaningful identity disclosure risks considerably. The risk model can be applied in the future to evaluate the privacy of fully synthetic data.
Khaled El Emam
Senior Scientist, CHEO Research Institute Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa