Assessing Anonymity Techniques Employed in German Court Decisions: A De-Anonymization Experiment


Dominic Deuber and Michael Keuchen, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg; Nicolas Christin, Carnegie Mellon University


Democracy requires transparency. Consequently, courts of law must publish their decisions. At the same time, the interests of the persons involved in these court decisions must be protected. For this reason, court decisions in Europe are anonymized using a variety of techniques. To understand how well these techniques protect the persons involved, we conducted an empirical experiment with 54 law students, whom we asked to de-anonymize 50 German court decisions. We found that all anonymization techniques used in these court decisions were vulnerable, most notably the use of initials. Since even supposedly secure anonymization techniques proved vulnerable, our work empirically reveals the complexity involved in the anonymization of court decisions, and thus calls for further research to increase anonymity while preserving comprehensibility. Toward that end, we provide recommendations for improving anonymization quality. Finally, we provide an empirical notion of “reasonable effort,” to flesh out the definition of anonymity in the legal context. In doing so, we bridge the gap between the technical and the legal understandings of anonymity.

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