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Spontaneous recognition: An unneccessary control on data access?

Ritchie, Felix



Emanuele Baldacci

Gyorgy Benoist

Carsten Boldsen

Monika Galambosne Tiszbergen

Janos Gerendas

Martin Karlberg

Asta Manninen

Per Nymand-Andersen

Jean-Michel Poggi

Gyorgy Sandor

Zoltan Vereczkei


Social scientists increasingly expect to have access to detailed source microdata for research purposes. As the level of detail increases, data owners worry about ‘spontaneous recognition’, the likelihood that a microdata user believes that he or she has accidentally identified one of the data subjects in the dataset, and may share that information. This concern, particularly in respect of microdata on businesses, leads to excessive restrictions on data use.
We argue that spontaneous recognition presents no meaningful risk to confidentiality. The standard ‘intruder’ model covers re-identification risk to an acceptable standard under most current legislation. If a spontaneous re-identification did occur, the user is very unlikely to be in breach of any law or condition of access. Any breach would only occur as a result of further actions by the user to confirm or assert identity, and these should be seen as a managerial problem.
Nevertheless, a consideration of spontaneous recognition does highlight some of the implicit assumptions make in data access decisions. It also shows the importance of the data owner’s institutional culture: for a default-open data owner, spontaneous recognition is a useful check on whether all relevant risks have been addressed, but for a default-closed data owner spontaneous recognition provides a way to place insurmountable barriers in front of those wanting to increase data access.

This is a shorter version of the paper published in the ECB Statistical Paper No. 24


Ritchie, F. (2017). Spontaneous recognition: An unneccessary control on data access?. In E. Baldacci, G. Benoist, C. Boldsen, M. Galambosne Tiszbergen, J. Gerendas, M. Karlberg, …Z. Vereczkei (Eds.), Selected papers from the 2016 Conference of European Statistics Stakeholders (148-158). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Publication Date Nov 10, 2017
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Pages 148-158
Book Title Selected papers from the 2016 Conference of European Statistics Stakeholders
ISBN 9789279736285
Keywords spontaneous recognition, confidentiality, statistical disclosure control, data access, data management
Publisher URL
Additional Information Additional Information : This is an extract from 'Selected papers from the 2016 Conference of European Statistics Stakeholders', which can be accessed at the publisher's site: A longer version of this paper is available as European Central Bank Statistical Paper no. 24, available from this repository as


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