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    Original Investigation
    Health Policy
    December 21, 2018

    Feasibility of Reidentifying Individuals in Large National Physical Activity Data Sets From Which Protected Health Information Has Been Removed With Use of Machine Learning

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Operations Research Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge
    • 2Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, University of California, Berkeley
    • 3Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute, Tsinghua University, Shenzhen, China
    • 4Institute For Health & Aging, Department of Physiological Nursing, University of California, San Francisco
    JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(8):e186040. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.6040
    Key Points español 中文 (chinese)

    Question  Is it possible to reidentify physical activity data that have had protected health information removed by using machine learning?

    Findings  This cross-sectional study used national physical activity data from 14 451 individuals from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys 2003-2004 and 2005-2006. Linear support vector machine and random forests reidentified the 20-minute-level physical activity data of approximately 80% of children and 95% of adults.

    Meaning  The findings of this study suggest that current practices for deidentifying physical activity data are insufficient for privacy and that deidentification should aggregate the physical activity data of many people to ensure individuals’ privacy.


    Importance  Despite 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.

    Objective  To 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 Participants  In 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.

    Exposures  The NHANES data sets contain objectively measured movement intensity as recorded by accelerometers worn during all walking for 1 week.

    Main Outcomes and Measures  The 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.

    Results  A 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 < .001 for all). The linear SVM algorithm successfully reidentified the demographic and 20-minute aggregated PA data of 4043 adults (85.6%) and 1695 children (69.8%) in NHANES 2003-2004 and 4041 adults (84.8%) and 1705 children (67.2%) in NHANES 2005-2006 (P < .001 for all).

    Conclusions and Relevance  This 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.