Geospatial cryptography: enabling researchers to access private, spatially referenced, human subjects data for cancer control and prevention

J Geogr Syst. 2017 Jul;19(3):197-220. doi: 10.1007/s10109-017-0252-3. Epub 2017 May 11.


As the volume, accuracy and precision of digital geographic information have increased, concerns regarding individual privacy and confidentiality have come to the forefront. Not only do these challenge a basic tenet underlying the advancement of science by posing substantial obstacles to the sharing of data to validate research results, but they are obstacles to conducting certain research projects in the first place. Geospatial cryptography involves the specification, design, implementation and application of cryptographic techniques to address privacy, confidentiality and security concerns for geographically referenced data. This article defines geospatial cryptography and demonstrates its application in cancer control and surveillance. Four use cases are considered: (1) national-level de-duplication among state or province-based cancer registries; (2) sharing of confidential data across cancer registries to support case aggregation across administrative geographies; (3) secure data linkage; and (4) cancer cluster investigation and surveillance. A secure multi-party system for geospatial cryptography is developed. Solutions under geospatial cryptography are presented and computation time is calculated. As services provided by cancer registries to the research community, de-duplication, case aggregation across administrative geographies and secure data linkage are often time-consuming and in some instances precluded by confidentiality and security concerns. Geospatial cryptography provides secure solutions that hold significant promise for addressing these concerns and for accelerating the pace of research with human subjects data residing in our nation's cancer registries. Pursuit of the research directions posed herein conceivably would lead to a geospatially encrypted geographic information system (GEGIS) designed specifically to promote the sharing and spatial analysis of confidential data. Geospatial cryptography holds substantial promise for accelerating the pace of research with spatially referenced human subjects data.

Keywords: Geographic information science; Geospatial cryptography; Human subjects research; Privacy; Spatial methods.