A standardised differential privacy framework for epidemiological modeling with mobile phone data

PLOS Digit Health. 2023 Oct 27;2(10):e0000233. doi: 10.1371/journal.pdig.0000233. eCollection 2023 Oct.


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of mobile phone data for monitoring human mobility patterns has become increasingly common, both to study the impact of travel restrictions on population movement and epidemiological modeling. Despite the importance of these data, the use of location information to guide public policy can raise issues of privacy and ethical use. Studies have shown that simple aggregation does not protect the privacy of an individual, and there are no universal standards for aggregation that guarantee anonymity. Newer methods, such as differential privacy, can provide statistically verifiable protection against identifiability but have been largely untested as inputs for compartment models used in infectious disease epidemiology. Our study examines the application of differential privacy as an anonymisation tool in epidemiological models, studying the impact of adding quantifiable statistical noise to mobile phone-based location data on the bias of ten common epidemiological metrics. We find that many epidemiological metrics are preserved and remain close to their non-private values when the true noise state is less than 20, in a count transition matrix, which corresponds to a privacy-less parameter ϵ = 0.05 per release. We show that differential privacy offers a robust approach to preserving individual privacy in mobility data while providing useful population-level insights for public health. Importantly, we have built a modular software pipeline to facilitate the replication and expansion of our framework.

Grants and funding

A portion of this study was generously supported by a Trust in Science Grant awarded by the Harvard Data Science Initiative to A.S., S.B., and C.B. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The other authors received no specific funding for this work.