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Putting People on the Map: Protecting Confidentiality with Linked Social-Spatial Data, National Research Council, MP Gutmann, PC Stern, EDS; The National Academic Press, 2007

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Link: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11865.html

This is a report from a working group assembled by the National Research Council to review the disclosure potential of spatially linked confidential data. The panel develops a series of recommendations that are intended to address perceived needs to improve the understanding of the sensitivity of such data and develop institutional and technical approaches for data stewards to properly maintain and release these data. A high level review of the issues that are relevant to this topic are discussed including disclosure potential, obligations of data collectors, data stewards and data users. The report also emphasizes the need to make such data available for research use.

The report does a good job of discussing the potential to re-identify geographically explicit data and the challenge of presenting spatial data in summary form that adequately safeguards against confidentiality breaches. To exemplify the problem, a study by Brownstein et al in 2006 is summarized that found spatial studies in prominent journals routinely present data in inappropriate ways. A simple low resolution map displaying 550 points across the city of Boston was used to demonstrate that one could precisely identify 79% of the points with all points identified within 14 meters of the true location.

There is discussion of institutional and technical approaches to ensuring confidentiality, a summary of techniques employed by various agencies and a set of recommendations. Institutional approaches include policies on restricted use including licensing, security requirements and sanctions for misuse; restricted access including tiered levels of protection based on harm and disclosure risk; and restricted environments where data can be accessed or enclaves. Technical approaches to confidentiality protection include data suppression rules, grouping data, synthetic changes to the data and variable limitations. Recommendations include a call for more research in this area, more education and training of researchers, and more consideration of data sharing and disclosure risks in research study designs.

The work provides a broad discussion of the topic of confidentiality protection relative to spatially linked data, it also provides an overview of privacy legislation in the US and Europe and an extensive review of ethical issues in the appendix. The report includes an extensive bibliography.