Privacy and uniqueness of neighborhoods in social networks

Daniele Romanini*, Sune Lehmann, Mikko Kivelä

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Abstract

The ability to share social network data at the level of individual connections is beneficial to science: not only for reproducing results, but also for researchers who may wish to use it for purposes not foreseen by the data releaser. Sharing such data, however, can lead to serious privacy issues, because individuals could be re-identified, not only based on possible nodes’ attributes, but also from the structure of the network around them. The risk associated with re-identification can be measured and it is more serious in some networks than in others. While various optimization algorithms have been proposed to anonymize networks, there is still only a limited theoretical understanding of which network features are important for the privacy problem. Using network models and real data, we show that the average degree of networks is a crucial parameter for the severity of re-identification risk from nodes’ neighborhoods. Dense networks are more at risk, and, apart from a small band of average degree values, either almost all nodes are uniquely re-identifiable or they are all safe. Our results allow researchers to assess the privacy risk based on a small number of network statistics which are available even before the data is collected. As a rule-of-thumb, the privacy risks are high if the average degree is above 10. Guided by these results, we explore sampling of edges as a strategy to mitigate the re-identification risk of nodes. This approach can be implemented during the data collection phase, and its effect on various network measures can be estimated and corrected using sampling theory. The new understanding of the uniqueness of neighborhoods in networks presented in this work can support the development of privacy-aware ways of designing network data collection procedures, anonymization methods, and sharing network data.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20104
Number of pages15
JournalScientific Reports
Volume11
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 11 Oct 2021
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

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