A prominent university professor has quit after the health department pressured her university to stop her speaking out about the Medicare and PBS history of over 2.5 million Australians being re-identifiable online due to a government bungle, The Guardian reports.
In 2016, Vanessa Teague, a cryptographer from the University of Melbourne, and two of her colleagues reported on a dataset, published on an open government data website by the federal government, of 2.5m Australians’ Medicare and PBS payment history dating back to 1984 that had supposedly been de-identified so people were anonymous.
Teague and her colleagues reported that the dataset had several samples where people were able to be identified.
In the research, they came up with seven examples where they were able to determine who the data was about based on publicly available but relatively unique information about that person – such as their birthday, dates of birth of their children, and other personal information.
Once they had that, the researchers had a trove of their entire medical history, including medication purchases and tests conducted.
Teague informed the government about it and the data was removed, but it was downloaded around 1,500 times in the six weeks it was online. Additionally, the dataset is still found easily online and the government appears to have taken no steps to have it removed.
In September 2018, Teague went back to the department and alerted them to a TV journalist’s data she had found in the dataset, and asked the department to notify them, or she would inform that journalist in 30 days.
Teague also asked the department to inform all 2.5m Australians in the dataset that their personal information was potentially compromised.
Instead, the health department secretary, Glenys Beauchamp, wrote to University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis to complain about Teague’s demands and requested she cease her work on the dataset.
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