Precise and fast cryptanalysis for bloom filter based privacy-preserving record linkage

Peter Christen, Thilina Ranbaduge, Dinusha Vatsalan, Rainer Schnell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Being able to identify records that correspond to the same entity across diverse databases is an increasingly important step in many data analytics projects. Research into privacy-preserving record linkage (PPRL) aims to develop techniques that can link records across databases such that besides the record pairs classified as matches no sensitive information about the entities in these databases is revealed. A popular technique used in PPRL is to encode sensitive values into Bloom filters (bit vectors), which has the advantage of allowing approximate matching using character q-grams. PPRL based on Bloom filter encoding has been shown to be accurate and scalable to large databases, and is thus now being used in real-world PPRL systems in Australia, Canada, and the UK. However, recent studies have shown that Bloom filters used for PPRL are vulnerable to cryptanalysis attacks that can re-identify some of the sensitive values encoded in these Bloom filters. While previous such attack methods were slow and required knowledge of various encoding parameters, we present a novel efficient attack which exploits how attribute values are encoded into Bloom filters. Our attack method does not require knowledge of the encoding function or its parameter settings used. It is able to correctly re-identify with high precision q-grams that could not have been hashed to certain Bloom filter bit positions, and using these re-identified q-grams it can then re-identify attribute values with high precision. Our method is significantly faster than earlier PPRL cryptanalysis attacks, and in our experimental evaluation, it is able to successfully re-identify attribute values from large real-world databases in a few minutes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2164-2177
Number of pages14
JournalIEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering
Issue number11
Early online date4 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • re-identification
  • frequency analysis
  • entity resolution
  • privacy evaluation
  • privacy attack
  • Re-identification


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