Has somebody shared your 'anonymised' health data? Bad news

Harvard boffins unmask 100% of 'encrypted' S Korean records

Researchers from Harvard University have published a paper claiming a 100 per cent success rate in de-anonymising patients from their supposedly anonymised healthcare data in South Korea.

The study, which bears the ronseal title of "De-anonymizing South Korean Resident Registration Numbers Shared in Prescription Data", was published this week in Technology Science.

Two de-anonymisation experiments were conducted in the study on prescription data from deceased South Koreans, with encrypted national identifiers - Resident Registration Numbers (RNN) - included.

The researchers found significant vulnerabilities in the anonymisation process which is applied to identifiers contained within prescription data, data which is often sold to multinational health companies.

The RNNs, similar to Blighty's National Insurance numbers, are unique 13-digit codes which represent demographic information.

Finding that "weakly encrypted RRNs" may be vulnerable to de-anonymisation, both experiments were 100 per cent successful, and revealed all 23,163 of the unencrypted RNNs.

Each experiment was conducted independently of the other, and provided each other with complementary validations as the boffins were able to match the same RRNs to the same patients in both experiments. Both are detailed in the journal article's methodology section.

Scandalous slurpage

The Harvard experiment used decedent information, however the experiments demonstrated "how others could associate an actual RRN for a living patient with his sensitive medical information."

The researchers noted a civil suit involving multinational IMS Health, regarding its access to that sensitive information. IMS Health claims to possess over 10PBs of "unique healthcare data", and is one of the largest vendors of physician prescribing data worldwide.

Confirmation of the suit is provided through an internal IMS Health document (PDF, pg. 14) which alleges an "affiliate collected plaintiffs' personal information without the necessary consent in violation of applicable privacy laws and transferred such information to IMS Korea for sale to customers."

If IMS Health did receive these kinds of data, then our study exposes the real-world realities of imperfect anonymization. Further research is necessary to propose alternatives to lawsuits.

Nearly the entirety of South Korea's population was victim to RNN breaches back in 2011, when an attack on the Cyworld social network managed to expose the information of 35 million users.

UK omnishambles

Medical information in the UK is not held on the NHS' Personal Demographics Serivce (PDS) by National Insurance number, but by a unique 10-digit NHS Number.

Responding to The Register regarding this security of this number's generation algorithm, the University of Cambridge's Ross Anderson said that the security of its generation was not really the point.

"The point isn't the generation algorithm, but the fact that about 800,000 people who work for the NHS and other organisations need to be able to tie people to NHS numbers in order to do their jobs," Anderson said.

The PDS is stated to "not hold any clinical or sensitive data items such as ethnicity or religion," however it does hold information such a name, birth data, address, gender, and telecommunication details.

Anderson has written extensively the security of information stored by Britain's NHS for 20 years now, and considers it to be "awful".

For example, the Department of Health refuses to do any incident monitoring centrally as ministers just don't want to know. If they were serious about privacy they'd have data centrally on every single incident.

[W]hen we tried to get this under freedom of information, we were referred to the thousands of individual NHS organisations. It's simply not credible for them to pretend they're managing security and privacy when they just don't want to know what's going on.

Anderson added:

The NHS is the main source of public-sector information leaks most years (the HMRC incident was an exception). Then there was the care.data scandal last year, which was also covered in one of the papers in [Latanya Sweeney's Technology Science].

Talking to El Reg, Dr Neil Bhatia, a Hampshire GP, explained that accessing the PDS couldn't possibly be audited or controlled. "It relies on trust," he said. There are too many users for it not to rely on trust as it's set up.

Although the potential research applications for granular medical data is enormous, it may "not be just medical researchers who would receive such access," said Bhatia, "but also those with commercial or political interests."

Bhatia suggested that particularly limited forms of aggregated data could be a decent compromise, protecting "extremely vulnerable individual records", however but insufficiently secured aggregated data sets would not be fit for purposes.

Asked whether there may be achievable balance between the provision, including sale, of healthcare data and patients' privacy, Anderson told El Reg that: "There could be, but given current governance arrangements it's extremely unlikely to happen."

The professor of security engineering added: "[M]inisters are still totally intimidated by the drugs and medical devices industries, who see access to our health data as a nifty marketing tool." ®

Broader topics

Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022