Study finds Big Data eliminates confidentiality in court judgements

The study analysed more than 122,000 federal court decisions. Keystone / Felipe Trueba

Swiss researchers have found that algorithms that mine large swaths of data can eliminate anonymity in federal court rulings. This could have major ramifications for transparency and privacy protection.

This content was published on September 2, 2019 - 12:04
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This is the result of a study by the University of Zurich's Institute of Law, published in the legal journal "Jusletter" and shared by Swiss public television SRF on Monday.

The study relied on a “web scraping technique” or mining of large swaths of data. The researchers created a database of all decisions of the Supreme Court available online from 2000 to 2018 – a total of 122,218 decisions. Additional decisions from the Federal Administrative Court and the Federal Office of Public Health were also added.

Using an algorithm and manual searches for connections between data, the researchers were able to de-anonymise, in other words reveal identities, in 84% of the judgments in less than an hour.

In this specific study, the researchers were able to identify the pharma companies and medicines hidden in the documents of the complaints filed in court.  

Study authors say that this could have far-reaching consequences for transparency and privacy. One of the study’s co-authors Kerstin Noëlle Vokinger, professor of law at the University of Zurich explains that, "With today's technological possibilities, anonymisation is no longer guaranteed in certain areas". The researchers say the technique could be applied to any publicly available database.

Vokinger added there is a need to balance necessary transparency while safeguarding the personal rights of individuals.

Adrian Lobsiger, the Swiss Federal Data Protection Commissioner, told SRF that this confirms his view that facts may need to be treated as personal data in the age of technology.

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