Evaluating Identity Disclosure Risk in Fully Synthetic Health Data: Model Development and Validation


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.

Lead Researchers

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  1. Khaled El Emam

    Senior Scientist, CHEO Research Institute Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa

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