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The linkage of records which refer to the same entity in separate data collections is a common requirement in public health and biomedical research. Traditionally, record linkage techniques have required that all the identifying data in which links are sought be revealed to at least one party, often a third party. This necessarily invades personal privacy and requires complete trust in the intentions of that party and their ability to maintain security and confidentiality. Dusserre, Quantin, Bouzelat and colleagues have demonstrated that it is possible to use secure one-way hash transformations to carry out follow-up epidemiological studies without any party having to reveal identifying information about any of the subjects – a technique which we refer to
as "blindfolded record linkage". A limitation of their method is that only exact comparisons of
values are possible, although phonetic encoding of names and other strings can be used to allow for some types of typographical variation and data errors.
Methods: A method is described which permits the calculation of a general similarity measure, the n-gram score, without having to reveal the data being compared, albeit at some cost in computation and data communication. This method can be combined with public key cryptography and automatic estimation of linkage model parameters to create an overall system for blindfolded record linkage.
Results: The system described offers good protection against misdeeds or security failures by any one party, but remains vulnerable to collusion between or simultaneous compromise of two or more parties involved in the linkage operation. In order to reduce the likelihood of this, the use of last-minute allocation of tasks to substitutable servers is proposed. Proof-of-concept computer programmes written in the Python programming language are provided to illustrate the similarity comparison protocol.
Conclusion: Although the protocols described in this paper are not unconditionally secure, they do suggest the feasibility, with the aid of modern cryptographic techniques and high speed communication networks, of a general purpose probabilistic record linkage system which permits record linkage studies to be carried out with negligible risk of invasion of personal privacy.