An ABS Perspective on Safe Data Access
Data access is becoming an increasingly important topic in the modern data landscape. This is due to increasing recognition of the value in data for areas such as scientific research, policy-making and business decision-making. This has been catalysed by the ever-increasing computing power and improved methodologies that enable more powerful data analyses. The fundamental challenge with data access is how to allow it in a safe way – managing privacy and confidentiality risks while maximising the utility of the data. On one extreme, preventing data access altogether would ensure minimal risk, but could render the data almost useless to anyone who does not have access to it. On the other extreme, allowing data access without any protective measures in place would enable the data to be used freely, but not all of those uses may be desirable and could heighten privacy and confidentiality risks. Data custodians enabling data access almost always seek a middle ground between these two extremes, dubbing this as the ‘utility-risk trade-off’.
The literature on the topic of safe data access is rich and growing, with contributions from fields such as statistics, computer science, data science, economics and even psychology. The ABS hopes to contribute by sharing our knowledge and experience in the form of a research paper, which we aim to release in early 2020. The paper will:
- highlight some of the main considerations and challenges in enabling access to public sector data,
- outline our definitions of privacy, confidentiality and data utility,
- provide an overview of our data confidentiality processes through the lens of the Five Safes Framework,
- compare and discuss our approach against other approaches, and
- explain the need to consider the utility-risk trade-off under different contexts.
The Five Safes Framework is the core of ABS’ confidentiality processes and is also adopted by the UK Office for National Statistics and Statistics New Zealand. This framework considers disclosure risk holistically through five dimensions:
- Safe Projects: Is the data to be used for an appropriate purpose?
- Safe People: Is the researcher appropriately authorised to access and use the data?
- Safe Settings: Does the access environment prevent unauthorised use?
- Safe Data: Has appropriate and sufficient protection been applied to the data?
- Safe Outputs: Are the statistical results non-disclosive?
The ABS has always been investing resources into research and development of methods for enabling safe data access. As the environment evolves and new ideas emerge, the ABS will continue to remain at the forefront of the debate as a thought leader and key contributor.
For more information, please contact Edwin Lu Methodology@abs.gov.au
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