Simple Demographics Often Identify People Uniquely

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Working Paper

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Abstract or Description

In this document, I report on experiments I conducted using 1990 U.S. Census summary data to determine how many individuals within geographically situated populations had combinations of demographic values that occurred infrequently. It was found that combinations of few characteristics often combine in populations to uniquely or nearly uniquely identify some individuals. Clearly, data released containing such information about these individuals should not be considered anonymous. Yet, health and other person-specific data are publicly available in this form. Here are some surprising results using only three fields of information, even though typical data releases contain many more fields. It was found that 87% (216 million of 248 million) of the population in the United States had reported characteristics that likely made them unique based only on {5-digit ZIP, gender, date of birth}. About half of the U.S. population (132 million of 248 million or 53%) are likely to be uniquely identified by only {place, gender, date of birth}, where place is basically the city, town, or municipality in which the person resides. And even at the county level, {county, gender, date of birth} are likely to uniquely identify 18% of the U.S. population. In general, few characteristics are needed to uniquely identify a person.