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Data Protection’s Composition Problem

Data Protection’s Composition Problem

Aaron Fluitt, Aloni Cohen, Micah Altman, Kobbi Nissim, Salome Viljoen, and Alexandra Wood—collaborators with the Privacy Tools project—published an article that argues that privacy and data protection regulations should be designed to explicitly regulate cumulative risk in a manner that is consistent with the science of composition effects.

Is it possible to piece together almost everyone’s confidential data in the US from statistics published by the Census Bureau—without breaching Census security or policy? Could someone—a doctor, a nosy neighbor, or a foreign state actor—determine whether a particular person participated in a genetic study of hundreds of individuals when each individual contributed only tiny trace amounts of DNA to a highly complex and aggregated genetic mixture? Could police detectives re-trace a suspect’s every movement over the course of many months and thereby learn intimate details about the suspect’s political, religious, and sexual associations—without having to deploy any sort of surveillance or tracking devices? Could someone reliably deduce the sexual preferences of a Facebook user without looking at any content that user has shared?

Until recently, most people probably never imagined that their highly sensitive personal data could be so vulnerable to discovery from seemingly innocuous sources. Many continue to believe that the privacy risks from purely public, statistical, and anonymized data are merely theoretical and that the practical risks are negligibly small. Yet all of the privacy violations described above are not only theoretically possible—they have already been successfully executed.
The foregoing examples of real-world privacy attacks all leverage one particular vulnerability that we refer to as composition effects. This vulnerability stems from the cumulative erosions of privacy that inhere in every piece of data about people. These erosions occur no matter how aggregated, insignificant, or anonymized the data may seem, and even small erosions can combine in unanticipated ways to create big risks.

Privacy and data protection failures from unanticipated composition effects reflect a type of data myopia—a short-sighted approach toward addressing increasingly-ubiquitous surveillance and privacy risks from Big Data analytics, characterized by a near-total focus on individual data processors and processes and by pervasive underestimation of systemic risks accumulating from independent data products. The failure to recognize accumulation of risk in the information ecosystem reflects a more general societal blind spot to cumulative systemic risks, with parallels in collective failures to foresee or forestall global financial crises and to adequately address mounting risks to the natural environment.

As the volume and complexity of data uses and publications grow rapidly across a broad range of contexts, the need to develop frameworks for addressing cumulative privacy risks is likely to become an increasingly urgent and widespread problem. Threats to privacy are growing due to the accelerating abundance, and richness, of data about individuals being generated and made publicly available. Furthermore, substantial increases in computing power and algorithmic improvements are making the execution of such attacks more technically feasible. These threats will be impossible to overcome unless regulations are designed to explicitly regulate cumulative risk in a manner that is consistent with the science of composition effects.

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