ImportanceDespite data aggregation and removal of protected health information, there is concern that deidentified physical activity (PA) data collected from wearable devices can be reidentified. Organizations collecting or distributing such data suggest that the aforementioned measures are sufficient to ensure privacy. However, no studies, to our knowledge, have been published that demonstrate the possibility or impossibility of reidentifying such activity data.
ObjectiveTo evaluate the feasibility of reidentifying accelerometer-measured PA data, which have had geographic and protected health information removed, using support vector machines (SVMs) and random forest methods from machine learning.
Design, setting, and participantsIn this cross-sectional study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 data sets were analyzed in 2018. The accelerometer-measured PA data were collected in a free-living setting for 7 continuous days. NHANES uses a multistage probability sampling design to select a sample that is representative of the civilian noninstitutionalized household (both adult and children) population of the United States.
ExposuresThe NHANES data sets contain objectively measured movement intensity as recorded by accelerometers worn during all walking for 1 week.
Main outcomes and measuresThe primary outcome was the ability of the random forest and linear SVM algorithms to match demographic and 20-minute aggregated PA data to individual-specific record numbers, and the percentage of correct matches by each machine learning algorithm was the measure.
ResultsA total of 4720 adults (mean [SD] age, 40.0 [20.6] years) and 2427 children (mean [SD] age, 12.3 [3.4] years) in NHANES 2003-2004 and 4765 adults (mean [SD] age, 45.2 [19.9] years) and 2539 children (mean [SD] age, 12.1 [3.4] years) in NHANES 2005-2006 were included in the study. The random forest algorithm successfully reidentified the demographic and 20-minute aggregated PA data of 4478 adults (94.9%) and 2120 children (87.4%) in NHANES 2003-2004 and 4470 adults (93.8%) and 2172 children (85.5%) in NHANES 2005-2006 (P?Conclusions and relevanceThis study suggests that current practices for deidentification of accelerometer-measured PA data might be insufficient to ensure privacy. This finding has important policy implications because it appears to show the need for deidentification that aggregates the PA data of multiple individuals to ensure privacy for single individuals.
SUBMITTER: Na L