On Ethics and Algorithms

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

An article on the front page of the Observer, Revealed: how drugs giants can access your health records, caught my eye this week. In summary the article highlights that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has been selling the medical data of NHS patients to international drugs companies and have “misled” the public that the information contained in the records would be “anonymous”.

The data in question is collated from GP surgeries and hospitals and, according to “senior NHS figures”, can “routinely be linked back to individual patients’ medical records via their GP surgeries.” Apparently there is “clear evidence” that companies have identified individuals whose medical histories are of “particular interest.” The DHSC have replied by saying it only sells information after “thorough measures” have been taken to ensure patient anonymity.

As with many articles like this it is frustrating when some of the more technical aspects are not fully explained. Whilst I understand the importance of keeping their general readership on board and not frightening them too much with the intricacies of statistics or cryptography it would be nice to know a bit more about how these records are being made anonymous.

There is a hint of this in the Observer report when it states that the CPRD (the Clinical Practice Research Datalink ) says the data made available for research was “anonymous” but, following the Observer’s story, it changed the wording to say that the data from GPs and hospitals had been “anonymised”. This is a crucial difference. One of the more common methods of ‘anonymisation’  is to obscure or redact some bits of information. So, for example, a record could have patient names removed and ages and postcodes “coarsened”, that is only the first part of a postcode (e.g. SW1A rather than SW1A 2AA)  are included and ages are placed in a range rather than using someones actual age (e.g. 60-70 rather than 63).

The problem with anonymising data records is that they are prone to what is referred to as data re-identification or de-anonymisation. This is the practice of matching anonymous data with publicly available information in order to discover the individual to which the data belongs. One of the more famous examples of this is the competition that Netflix organised encouraging people to improve its recommendation system by offering a $50,000 prize for a 1% improvement. The Netflix Prize was started in 2006 but abandoned in 2010 in response to a lawsuit and Federal Trade Commission privacy concerns. Although the dataset released by Netflix to allow competition entrants to test their algorithms had supposedly been anonymised (i.e. by replacing user names with a meaningless ID and not including any gender or zip code information) a PhD student from the University of Texas was able to find out the real names of people in the supplied dataset by cross-referencing the Netflix dataset with Internet Movie Database (IMDB) ratings which people post publicly using their real names.

Herein lies the problem with the anonymisation of datasets. As Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth highlight in their recent book The Ethical Algorithm, when an organisation releases anonymised data they can try and make an intelligent guess as to which bits of the dataset to anonymise but it can be difficult (probably impossible) to anticipate what other data sources either already exist or could be made available in the future which could be used to correlate records. This is the reason that the computer scientist Cynthia Dwork has said “anonymised data isn’t” – meaning either it isn’t really anonymous or so much of the dataset has had to be removed that it is no longer data (at least in any useful way).

So what to do? Is it actually possible to release anonymised datasets out into the wild with any degree of confidence that they can never be de-anonymised? Thankfully something called differential privacy, invented by the aforementioned Cynthia Dwork and colleagues, allows us to do just that. Differential privacy is a system for publicly sharing information about a dataset by describing the patterns of groups within the dataset while withholding information about individuals in that dataset.

To understand how differential privacy works consider this example*. Suppose we want to conduct a poll of all people in London to find out who have driven after taking non-prescription drugs. One way of doing this is to randomly sample a suitable number of Londoners, asking them if they have ever driven whilst under the influence of drugs. The data collected could be entered into a spreadsheet and various statistics, e.g. number of men, number of women, maybe ages etc derived. The problem is that whilst collecting this information lots of compromising personal details may be collected which, if the data were stolen, could be used against them.

In order to avoid this problem consider the following alternative. Instead of asking people the question directly, first ask them to flip a coin but not to tell us how it landed. If the coin comes up heads they tell us (honestly) if they have driven under the influence. If it comes up tails however they tell us a random answer then flip the coin again and tell us “yes” if it comes up heads or “no” if it is tails. This polling protocol is a simple randomised algorithm which is a form of differential privacy. So how does this work?

differential privacy
If your answer is no, the randomised response answers no two out of three times. It answers no only one out of three times if your answer is yes. Diagram courtesy Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth, The Ethical Algorithm 2020

When we ask people if they have driven under the influence using this protocol half the time (i.e. when the coin lands heads up) the protocol tells them to tell the truth. If the protocol tells them to respond with a random answer (i.e. when the coin lands tails up), then half of that time they just happen to randomly tell us the right answer. So they tell us the right answer 1/2 + ((1/2) x (1/2)) or three-quarters of the time. The remaining one quarter of the time they tell us a lie. There is no way of telling true answers from lies. Surely though, this injection of randomisation completely masks the true results and the data is now highly error prone? Actually, it turns out, this is not the case.

Because we know how this randomisation is introduced we can reverse engineer the answers we get to remove the errors and get an approximation of the right answer. Here’s how. Suppose one-third of people in London have actually driven under the influence of drugs. So of the one-third who have truthfully answered “yes” to the question, three-quarters of those will answer “yes” using the protocol, that is 1/3 x 3/4 = 1/4. Of the two-thirds who have a truthful answer of “no”, one-quarter of those will report “yes”, that is 2/3 x 1/4 = 1/6. So we expect 1/4 + 1/6 = 5/12 ~ 1/3 of the population to answer “yes”.

So what is the point of doing the survey like this? Simply put it allows the true answer to be hidden behind the protocol. If the data were leaked and an individual from it was identified as being suspected of driving under the influence then they could always argue they were told to say “yes” because of the way the coins fell.

In the real world a number of companies including the US census, Apple, Google and Privitar Lens use differential privacy to limit the disclosure of private information about individuals whose information is in public databases.

It would be nice to think that the NHS data that is supposedly being used by US drug companies was protected by some form of differential privacy. If it were, and if this could be explained to the public in a reasonable and rational way, then surely we would all benefit both in the knowledge that our data is safe and is maybe even being put to good use in protecting and improving our health. After all, wasn’t this meant to be the true benefit of living in a connected society where information is shared for the betterment of all our lives?

*Based on an example from Kearns and Roth in The Ethical Algorithm.