Data Anonymization is a complex topic but PostgreSQL has a lot of interesting features to tackle this challenge! Here is an overview of different approach and how to implement them directly within a PostgreSQL database.

Over the last few months I have been working on a project called PostgreSQL Anonymizer. It led me to try various techniques to remove personal data for different purposes: development, CI, functional testing, Analytics, etc.

See my previous article “Introducing PostgreSQL Anonymizer” for more details about that project…

So far, I have found 8 different ways to anonymize a dataset. Here’s a quick tour with practical examples. All the queries in the article will use a simplified table (see below) and should work with any current version of PostgreSQL (from 9.4 to 11).

CREATE TABLE people (
    id SERIAL,
    name TEXT NOT NULL,
    address TEXT,
    age INTEGER,
    salary INTEGER,
    phone TEXT
);

0. Sampling

Sampling is not Anonymization! But when you need to remove personal data from a database, most of the time you don’t need to publish all the rows. The anonymization process will be faster and you will limit the risk of unintended disclosure.

So before going any further it is important to note that PostgreSQL provides a feature called TABLESAMPLE that will reduce the size of your dataset.

For example, if you want to work only on 20% of a table:

SELECT * FROM people TABLESAMPLE BERNOULLI(20);

And if you want to extract a subset among several tables while maintaining referential integrity, pg_sample is your friend !


1. Suppression

This is the most obvious way to get rid of personal identifiers: just wipe a column by replacing all values with NULL (aka “Nullification”) or with a constant value (“Static Substitution”).

Example :

UPDATE people SET name = '<CONFIDENTIAL>';
UPDATE people SET address = NULL;

This is simple and effective. For useless or highly sensitive data fields, it may be the best option.

But of course it will break integrity constraints (PRIMARY, UNIQUE, NOT NULL, etc.). And moreover, the column will be useless for functional testing.


2. Random Substitution

This time we are replacing personal data with purely random values.

Example:

UPDATE people SET name = md5(random()::text);
UPDATE people SET salary= 100000*random();

Again this is simple and it does not break NOT NULL constraints. But this is still useless for functional testing and for analytics…


3. Variance

The idea here is to add noise to the data by “shifting” the values from the original dataset and make them to be slightly different.

For example, modify the salary field by a random factor of +/- 25% like this:

UPDATE people
SET salary= salary *  (1+ (2 * random() - 1 ) * 0.25) ;

This is great for indirect identifiers: dates and numeric values that should remain meaningful without revealing identity. Aggregations such as average and sum will be similar to the original.

Of course, it is important to adapt the degree of perturbation depending on the distribution of the values, of the attribute and the size of the dataset.

However even with a strong perturbation, reidentification is possible when the dataset contain extreme values. In the previous example, if someone earns 100 times the average wage, adding noise will not hide the identity of this highly paid employee. With such a big difference, it is easy to deduce that the person is the CEO of the company.


4. Encryption

Anonymization and Encryption are often associated when people talk about data privacy. But each process has its own purpose. The main difference being that Encryption is a two-way process (some user should be able decrypt or re-hash the data), while Anonymization is a definitive alteration of the dataset.

It is possible to use encryption function as a destructive method just by immediately destroying the encryption key. PostgreSQL offers a wide range of encryption functions packed in an extension called pgcrypto.

For example, a simple and definitive way is to alter data is to generate a new random “salt” for each call of the crypt function:

CREATE EXTENSION pgcrypto;

UPDATE people
SET name = SELECT crypt('name', gen_salt('md5'));

In my view, this is useful for very specific situations: mostly TEXT attributes with an UNIQUE constraint. Or when you need the transformation process to be IMMUTABLE you can use a static salt or encryption key (but then if it is stolen, authentic data can be revealed).

Anyway, this strategy is a good fit for analytics. Not for functional testing or development, because in the long run, it is hard to work with values like “DN29BHSY$CVju1” and “S7ckeXJAVYZfM3SF1” :-)


5. Shuffling

The purpose of shuffling is to swap data within the dataset. Each value of the column is still present, but attached to a different record.

For example, here’s a permutation on the salary column:

WITH p1 AS (
    SELECT row_number() over (order by random()) n,
           salary AS salary1
    FROM people
),
p2 AS (
    SELECT row_number() over (order by random()) n,
           id AS id2
    FROM people
)
UPDATE people
SET salary = p1.salary1
FROM p1 join p2 on p1.n = p2.n
WHERE id = p2.id2;

This is a less destructive approach, because we keep real values in the dataset: aggregates (sum, average) are correct. This is also the best strategy if the column is referenced by a foreign key.

However the shuffling function is a bit complex to write and it is not really effective on data with low standard deviation or very few distinct values (such as boolean).


6. Faking / Mocking

Another idea is to replace sensitive data with random-but-plausible values, also know as synthetic data.

For instance, we can call a function fake_address() that will produce a value that looks real :

UPDATE people
SET address = fake_address();

The difficulty, of course, is to write the faking function. For dates or numeric values, it is basic. But for more complex data types, it may require some effort to produce relevant synthetic data. Various open source tools can help you with that, personnally I like faker a lot.

Furthermore this technique is not appropriate for analytics because the values are not “real”. On the other hand, it is perfect for CI and functional testing.


7. Partial Suppression

In certain cases, you might want to hide just some parts of the data and leave other parts visible.

For instance, let’s replace the following phone number “01 42 92 81 00” by “XX XX XX 81 00”:

UPDATE people
SET phone = 'XX XX XX ' || substring(phone FROM 9 FOR 5 );

Partial Suppression is similar to Static Substitution. But it has an interesting property: the data subjects can still recognize his/her own data while other users can’t…

Another advantage is that this transformation is IMMUTABLE: the same input values will always produce the output.

This technique is perfect for direct identifiers: Credit Card, Phone, E-mail, etc.

However it works only with TEXT / VARCHAR types.


8. Generalization

With this approach, values are replaced with a broader category. This is easily done in Postgres with RANGE data type.

For instance, we can replace the age field with a range based on the previous and next decade. Instead of saying “Person X is 28 years old”, you’d say “Person X is between 20 and 30 years old.”

CREATE TABLE anonymous_people
AS  SELECT
        id,
        '*' AS name,
        int4range(age/10*10, (age/10+1)*10) AS age
    FROM people
;

The main drawback here is the change of data type. The age is now a range of numeric values. Obviously this will break CI, functional tests and any use related to the application. But this approach is fine for data analytics and aggregation.

We also face the same issue as the variance strategy: if the data set has ‘extreme values’ and the generalization is too soft, there’s a risk of re-identification. With the example above, if there’s only 1 person under 20 years old in the table, he/she will be easily recognized.


Finding the right strategy

In a nutshell, anonymization is a complex topic and it takes time to produce an anonymized dataset that would at the same time useful and with a low risk of reidentification.

For the same dataset, you might need to use different strategies depending on the final destination of the data.

Here’s a quick recap :


Strategy Data Types When to use
Suppression All Useless attributes
Random Substitution All Useless attributes with integrity constraints
Variance Numeric / Dates Analytics
Encryption Text Analytics / UNIQUE attributes
Shuffling All Analytics
Faking / Mocking All Dev / CI / Functional Testing
Partial Suppression Text Direct Identifiers
Generalization Numeric / Dates Analytics



What we are trying to do with PostgreSQL Anonymizer project is to provide tools to help developers implement those techniques. We will work mainly on shuffling, variance, faking and dynamic masking. The goal is to extend the DDL syntax and define the masking policy directly inside the table declaration. The project is at an early stage of development. We are really looking for feedback and ideas on how to proceed.

If you are interested, check out the code here : https://gitlab.com/dalibo/postgresql_anonymizer




Credits : madtibo for the help and ideas and Aftab Uzzaman for the photo.



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