How unique are you?


How unique are you? We played with a data privacy tool today here at WPF that showed us if the combination of our birthdate and zip code made us statistically unique. The more unique you are, the more identifiable you are in a sea of supposedly “anonymous” data. This tool was developed by Dr. LaTanya Sweeney at Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab, and using it will tell you how easily you can be identified from records that may not even have your name on them.

It’s a great tool, because it aptly demonstrates how commonly circulated demographic data can be used to identify us personally and uniquely. Most people are surprised to learn that if you can collect a birthdate (month, day and year of birth), gender, and 5-digit zip code, that combination of information will uniquely identify most people in the United States. You can read more about Dr. Sweeney’s research on identifying people from readily available public data here. Dr. Sweeney is justly well-known for proving that “anonymized” medical records can be re-identified using these techniques.

As for our uniqueness results using the data tool here at WPF, we discovered that some of us are uncomfortably unique — some of us have birthdates that occur only one time in our zip code, and that once is us. You can try this out for yourself at Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab: