Privacy and government

The Centre supports research on fundamental questions about the relationship between citizens and government in a world of big data and surveillance. As the scale of data collection and use expands, the methods used to protect the privacy and integrity of those datasets become ever more important. As more services, including essential government services, move online, designing methods for protecting them from attacks, whilst ensuring equitable and safe access, presents a unique set of challenges. Simultaneously, the widespread use of digital communication is leading to greater surveillance, both from industry and government, requiring end-users to adopt more sophisticated techniques to maintain their privacy.

Research focus

Researchers associated with the group focus on the following areas:

Data and privacy

Demonstrating weaknesses in de-identification and privacy preserving record linkage techniques. Notably, researchers were able to demonstrate re-identification of suppliers and patients in the Australian Government’s MBS/PBS open data release. The release was a 10% sample of the Medicare Billing Service records dating back 30 years. Members have conducted research in the areas of Differential Privacy and re-identification. In addition to research, the group has conducted audits into prospective releases and proposed privacy preserving record linkage schemes.

Cryptography and surveillance

The group is active in explaining the importance of cryptography in enabling secure communication, and the dangers presented by attempts to weaken or backdoor such systems.

The group is active in both research and wider public engagement, regularly making submissions to, and appearing before, federal and state inquiries. The group is active in the media and regularly contributes to the wider public discourse on matters of privacy, security, and surveillance.

Key research projects and contracts

Some of our key research projects and contracts in the three pillars include:

Privacy preserving record linkage

Contracted to prepare an options paper for the Australian Bureau of Statistics on the encoding of names for data linking. The project provided a review of the state of the art, as well as a series of options that the ABS could pursue. The report is available at: Options for encoding names for data linking at the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Re-identification research

Our research has demonstrated the ability to re-identify data in supposedly de-identified datasets. Most notably, the MBS/PBS government release of Medicare billing data, in which we were able to recover all suppliers IDs and demonstrate the re-identifiability of individual patients. In addition we have shown vulnerabilities in the UK Office for National Statistics Privacy Preserving Record Linkage scheme.

Further details are available:

Differential privacy

As well as research applications of differential privacy, we have also conducted an independent audit for Transport for New South Wales on their differentially private release of Opal transport data. Our report is available at: Privacy Assessment of De-identified Opal Data: A report for Transport for NSW.

Media and government

The group is active in both the media and in contributing to the wider public discourse through regular submissions to government inquires and consultations.