Top>Opinion>The Use and Anonymization of Personal Data

OpinionIndex

Shinsuke Ito

Shinsuke Ito [profile]

The Use and Anonymization of Personal Data

Shinsuke Ito
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Economic statistics

Read in Japanese

1. What is personal data?

There has been growing interest in personal data in society in recent years. Personal data can be considered as a type of so-called “big data” that is held in large quantities by mainly private-sector companies as personal information that allows for the identification of an individual’s name, address, and even their socio-economic attributes. Much attention is being given to the use of personal data, particularly by private-sector companies. In addition to the sales of personal data in order to make profits, companies are also pursuing possibilities for further business based on this data. Under these conditions, the protection of personal information contained in personal data is of critical importance in the provision of personal data.

2. Revisions to the Act on the Protection of Personal Information

The personal information held by private-sector companies and other entities is being discussed within the framework of the Act on the Protection of Personal Information. According to Article 2 Paragraph 1 of the current Act on the Protection of Personal Information, the term “personal information” means “information about a living individual which can identify the specific individual by name, date of birth or other description contained in such information (including such information as will allow easy reference to other information and will thereby enable the identification of the specific individual).” Personal information cannot be provided to a third party without the consent of the individual, with the exception of cases in which there is an opt-out. Meanwhile, information that does not constitute personal information covered by the Act on the Protection of Personal Information (“non-personal information”) can be used for commercial purposes and sold. In order to discuss how this type of non-personal information is positioned as personal data, it is necessary to consider the possibility of the anonymization of personal data from various perspectives.

With the aim of clarifying the rules concerning the use of this type of personal data, the Cabinet Secretariat’s IT Strategic Headquarters started holding the Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data in September 2013, which was subsequently held a total of 12 times (September to December 2013 and March to June 2014) (first chaired by Masao Horibe, Emeritus Professor at Hitotsubashi University, and subsequently chaired by Katsuya Uga, Professor the University of Tokyo from March 2014). In addition, in order to further consider the technical aspects of the use of personal data, a Technical Review Working Group (“Technical Review WG” chaired by Ichiro Satoh, Professor at the National Institute of Informatics) was established within the Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data. The Technical Review WG was held a total of six times (September to December 2013 and April to May 2014. Due to my considerable research experience covering the anonymization of statistical data, I also became involved in discussions on personal data as a member of the Technical Review WG.

3. Creation of anonymous data for public statistics in Japan

 Accompanying the full enforcement of the Statistics Act (Act No. 53 of 2007) in Japan, since April 2009 anonymous data has been provided for government statistics (public statistics). Currently anonymous data is provided for seven studies including the National Census, Employment Status Survey, and the Basic Survey on Social Life. The provision of this anonymous data contributes to micro-level empirical socioeconomic research centering around household sector economic behavior related to employment and lifestyles. If institutional measures concerning anonymization within the statistics system and technical anonymization measures for the anonymous data used in Japan’s public statistics make the possibility of this data being used to identify an individual sufficiently low and confidentiality can be ensured, the preparation and provision of anonymous data is possible. This preparation of anonymous data for public statistics has provided a useful point of reference for discussions concerning the anonymization of personal data.

4. Discussion on the anonymization of personal data

 One of the major discussion themes of the Technical Review WG of the Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data was the possibility of reasonable technical anonymization measures. The Technical Review WG reached the conclusion that a versatile technology that makes it possible to process any type of personal information so that individuals cannot be identified does not exist and that the possibility of applying technologies to process information so that individuals cannot be identified should be judged on a case-by-case basis.[1] Furthermore, the Technical Review WG presented the concept of “pseudo personal data” (provisional name) such as facial recognition data that differs from personal information but could be used to identify individuals, as well as the concept of “data with reduced personal identification characteristics” (provisional name). In terms of data with reduced personal identification characteristics, because it is not possible to define the minimum processing method to ensure that data has these characteristics, it was pointed out that it would be necessary for businesses to adequately process this data based on their own judgment and responsibility while giving consideration to the balance between reducing the ability to identify specific individuals and the needs of the user.[2]

In consideration of these discussions by the Technical Review WG, the Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data released the “Policy Outline of the Institutional Revision for Utilization of Personal Data” (the “Policy Outline”) in June 2014. Concerning data with reduced personal identification characteristics that can be provided to a third party without the consent of the individual concerned, the Policy Outline points out the necessity of regulations and self-regulation by private-sector organizations that prohibit the identification of specific individuals, as well as the importance of the adequate enforcement of institutions through the establishment of a third-party organization.

5. The future of personal data

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is currently holding the Research Society on Personal Data Held by Government Organizations to discuss the personal data held by government organizations, independent administrative institutions, and other bodies, as well as the availability of this data. Meanwhile, discussions concerning the revision of the Act on the Protection of Personal Information based on the Policy Outline will be likely to become more advanced as efforts are made to further utilize the personal data held by private-sector companies. I will continue to watch these development in the use of personal data in the future.

  1. ^ Cabinet Secretariat’s IT Strategic Headquarters Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data (2013) “Technical Review Working Group Report” [Gijutsu Kento Wakingu Grupu Hokokusho], page 20, 21, and 23.
  2. ^ Cabinet Secretariat’s IT Strategic Headquarters Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data (2014) “Technical Review Working Group Report: Consideration of ‘Pseudo Personal Data (provisional name)’ and ‘Data with Reduced Personal Identification Characteristics (provisional name)’ From a Technical Point of View” [Gijutsu Kento Wakingu Grupu Hokokusho: ‘(Kasho) Jun Kojinjoho’ oyobi ‘(Kasho) Kojintokuteisei Teigen Deta’ ni kansuru Gijutsuteki Kanten kara no Kosatsu ni tsuite”] page 24 to 26.
Shinsuke Ito
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Economic statistics
Professor Ito was born in Fukuoka Prefecture and completed the course requirements for the doctoral program of Graduate School of Economics, Kyushu University, receiving a doctorate in economics. He served as a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Economics, Meikai University in 2007. After subsequently serving as an associate professor at Meikai University, he was appointed as an associate professor on the Faculty of Economics at Chuo University in April 2014 and has held this position to the present. He has served as a member of the Technical Review Working Group of the Research Society for Use and Circulation of Personal Data in the Cabinet Secretariat’s IT Strategic Headquarters and as a technical expert for the Cabinet Office’s Statistical Commission. Recently his research has mainly focused on anonymization measures for government statistical micro-data and the availability of micro-data.
[Major recent achievements]
“Data Swapping as a More Efficient Tool to Create Anonymized Census Microdata in Japan,” Paper presented at Privacy in Statistical Databases 2014, Ibiza, Spain, 2014, pp.1-14 (with Naomi Hoshino).
“Verification of the Effectiveness of Swapping Using National Census Microdata” [Kokusei Chosa Mikurodeta o Mochiita Swappingu no Yukosei no Kensho] (co-authored with Naomi Hoshino, scheduled to be published in Statistics [Tokeigaku] No. 107).
“Methodical Development of a Micro-Simulation Model: Using America’s Micro-Social Analysis Model as an Example” [Mikurosimyureshonmoderu no Hohoteki Tenkai: Amerika no Mikuro Shakai Bunseki Moderu o Rei ni], Meikai University Economics Essays [Meikai Daigaku Keizaigaku Ronshu] Vol. 26, No. 1, September 2013, pp.1-18.