The University of Southampton

Southampton researcher produces free guide to protecting online identity

Published: 25 July 2016

A free guide to protecting online identity by anonymising data has been published by a team including a member of Southampton’s Web and Internet Science Group (WAIS).

Dr Kieron O’Hara, Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton, worked with colleagues from the University of Manchester and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to produce the publication that advises data controllers how they can share data safely while minimising the risk of revealing the identities of people included in the dataset.

The Anonymisation Decision-Making Framework (ADF) helps ensure people are not identifiable from shared datasets being pieced together.

In the wrong circumstances almost any piece of information can serve to help identify an individual, building a picture of them bit by bit by so-called ‘jigsaw identification’. In the past badly anonymised datasets have resulted in inappropriate releases of personal data and many data controllers are concerned about their liability in the event of a data breach. However, this fear could be detrimental to their data’s potential value if they become averse to sharing it for the public good.

The ADF aims to ensure that the risk of identifying people from anonymised data can be reduced to an acceptably low level, while retaining the data's usability.

For the past three years Kieron has worked with Mark Elliot and Elaine Mackey, from the University of Manchester, and Caroline Tudor, formerly of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), to develop the framework, and they have worked with many experts and practitioners in an innovative engagement exercise to ensure it is an effective, functional tool.

Published by the UK Anonymisation Network (UKAN), the book can be downloaded for free and unifies the technical and legal aspects of anonymisation in 10 important activities to be considered by the data controller.

UKAN was set up in 2012 with seed funding from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – the UK regulatory body for data protection. It involves the universities of Southampton and Manchester, the ONS and the Open Data Institute.

The incoming Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has contributed a Foreword, in which she recognises “the continued importance of this field of informatics to the fulfilment of the ICO’s mission.”

To download the free book visit

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