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Open Access Research article

The perceived impact of location privacy: A web-based survey of public health perspectives and requirements in the UK and Canada

Philip AbdelMalik12*, Maged N Kamel Boulos1 and Ray Jones1

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Health and Social Work, University of Plymouth, Centre Court, 73 Exeter Street, Drake Circus, Plymouth, Devon PL4 8AA, UK

2 Office of Public Health Practice, Public Health Agency of Canada, 120 Colonnade Road, AL6702A, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0K9, Canada

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BMC Public Health 2008, 8:156  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-156

Published: 9 May 2008

Abstract

Background

The "place-consciousness" of public health professionals is on the rise as spatial analyses and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are rapidly becoming key components of their toolbox. However, "place" is most useful at its most precise, granular scale – which increases identification risks, thereby clashing with privacy issues. This paper describes the views and requirements of public health professionals in Canada and the UK on privacy issues and spatial data, as collected through a web-based survey.

Methods

Perceptions on the impact of privacy were collected through a web-based survey administered between November 2006 and January 2007. The survey targeted government, non-government and academic GIS labs and research groups involved in public health, as well as public health units (Canada), ministries, and observatories (UK). Potential participants were invited to participate through personally addressed, standardised emails.

Results

Of 112 invitees in Canada and 75 in the UK, 66 and 28 participated in the survey, respectively. The completion proportion for Canada was 91%, and 86% for the UK. No response differences were observed between the two countries. Ninety three percent of participants indicated a requirement for personally identifiable data (PID) in their public health activities, including geographic information. Privacy was identified as an obstacle to public health practice by 71% of respondents. The overall self-rated median score for knowledge of privacy legislation and policies was 7 out of 10. Those who rated their knowledge of privacy as high (at the median or above) also rated it significantly more severe as an obstacle to research (P < 0.001). The most critical cause cited by participants in both countries was bureaucracy.

Conclusion

The clash between PID requirements – including granular geography – and limitations imposed by privacy and its associated bureaucracy require immediate attention and solutions, particularly given the increasing utilisation of GIS in public health. Solutions include harmonization of privacy legislation with public health requirements, bureaucratic simplification, increased multidisciplinary discourse, education, and development of toolsets, algorithms and guidelines for using and reporting on disaggregate data.