Musings on privacy issues in health research involving disaggregate geographic data about individuals

Maged N Kamel Boulos, Andrew J Curtis, Philip Abdelmalik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


This paper offers a state-of-the-art overview of the intertwined privacy, confidentiality, and security issues that are commonly encountered in health research involving disaggregate geographic data about individuals. Key definitions are provided, along with some examples of actual and potential security and confidentiality breaches and related incidents that captured mainstream media and public interest in recent months and years. The paper then goes on to present a brief survey of the research literature on location privacy/confidentiality concerns and on privacy-preserving solutions in conventional health research and beyond, touching on the emerging privacy issues associated with online consumer geoinformatics and location-based services. The 'missing ring' (in many treatments of the topic) of data security is also discussed. Personal information and privacy legislations in two countries, Canada and the UK, are covered, as well as some examples of recent research projects and events about the subject. Select highlights from a June 2009 URISA (Urban and Regional Information Systems Association) workshop entitled 'Protecting Privacy and Confidentiality of Geographic Data in Health Research' are then presented. The paper concludes by briefly charting the complexity of the domain and the many challenges associated with it, and proposing a novel, 'one stop shop' case-based reasoning framework to streamline the provision of clear and individualised guidance for the design and approval of new research projects (involving geographical identifiers about individuals), including crisp recommendations on which specific privacy-preserving solutions and approaches would be suitable in each case.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages46
JournalInternational Journal of Health Geographics
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2009


  • Biomedical Research
  • Computer Security
  • Confidentiality
  • Demography
  • Humans
  • Privacy


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