Data de-identification has many benefits in the context of the EU General Data Protection Regulation. One of the recurring questions is whether consent is required to anonymize or de-identify data. In this article, we make the case that no consent is required for anonymization or other forms of de-identification.
For the purposes of this discussion, we use “de-identification” as a general term that includes the full spectrum of methods, from simple pseudonymization to full anonymization.
Article 4(2) of the GDPR defines processing to mean any operation performed on personal data, including "adaptation or alteration." Any form of de-identification will invariably involve some form of adaptation or alteration of the data.
The GDPR requires there to be a legal basis to process personal data. The most well-known basis is the explicit consent of the data subject. However, under the GDPR, obtaining explicit consent can be difficult; in some scenarios, such as research, big data analytics and machine learning, obtaining explicit consent may be impractical or impossible. Furthermore, there is compelling evidence that obtaining consent can result in bias, which, in certain circumstances, can affect the outcome of the analysis. Introducing bias into data would not be in the interest of any of the stakeholders.
In Opinion 05/2014 of the Article 29 Working Party on Anonymisation Techniques, the Working Party stated:
“The Working Party considers that anonymisation as an instance of further processing of personal data can be considered to be compatible with the original purposes of the processing but only on condition the anonymisation process is such as to reliably produce anonymised information in the sense described in this paper.”
In other words, the processing of personal data in order to fully anonymize it is “compatible with the purpose for which the personal data are initially collected” and therefore does not require an additional legal basis, such as consent, specifically for the act of anonymizing.
As used in the Article 29 Working Party opinion, the term “anonymization” reflects the highest or strongest level of de-identification. But lesser forms of de-identification, such as pseudonymization, are recognized in the GDPR as privacy-protective measures that reduce risk to the data subject. And to the extent an additional legal basis may be needed for the data-processing activity of de-identifying personal data, companies have an extremely strong basis to rely on a legal basis other than consent — in particular, “legitimate interests.”
After all, the legitimate interests' basis involves a balancing test between the legitimate interests of the controller or a third party, weighed against “the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require protection of personal data.” De-identifying data is in the interests of both the data controller (because it reduces the risk of handling identified data) and the data subject (because it’s a means of protecting the data subject’s fundamental rights and freedoms). Thus, in nearly every conceivable case, data controllers should be able to de-identify data based on legitimate interests.
This conclusion will inevitably lead to better data protection practices. As a practical matter, if there were a requirement to obtain consent from individuals to anonymize or de-identify data, that would discourage the use of these data protective measures, which would increase risks for data subjects and controllers.
Once personal data has been fully anonymized, it is no longer personal data, and subsequent uses of the data are no longer regulated by the GDPR. Once personal data is de-identified to a level that falls short of full anonymization, subsequent uses of the de-identified data still must be compatible with the original purpose and may require an additional legal basis. But on both those counts, the de-identification helps support the secondary use of the data.
Irrespective of the de-identification method used, it is good practice to inform data subjects that their data will be de-identified and may be processed for additional purposes. The mechanism to inform the data subjects will depend on the circumstances (e.g., physical poster versus online).
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