The Harvard Journal of Law & Technology recently released its Fall 2011 issue, now available online. Jane Yakowitz, author of “Tragedy of the Data Commons” has written an abstract of her article for the Digest, presented below.
- The Digest Staff
JOLT Print Preview: Tragedy of the Data Commons
The data that fuels most of the quantitative health and policy research in this country is publicly available data that has undergone some sort of anonymization process. This is the data commons, and unwittingly, we are all in it. Our tax returns, medical records, and school records, among other things, seed its pastures and facilitate a wide range of empirical studies.
In theory the data commons gives us the best of both worlds by allowing researchers to test hypotheses and produce generalizable results without exposing anybody’s personal information. But in practice, we all shoulder some risk that a bad actor might use auxiliary information to reidentify us, and discover our private information. The looming policy question, raised by Paul Ohm and the Federal Trade Commission, is whether current data privacy policies in the United States strike the right balance between the risks of reidentification attacks and the utility of data-sharing. Paul Ohm and other scholars believe the risk is too high, that we need stronger privacy laws to protect data subjects. This article comes to the exact opposite conclusion: the utility of public research data is so great, and the realistic risks so small, that the law should foster the sharing of anonymized data. (more…)