# Frequency analysis

Suppose you have a list of encrypted surnames names of US citizens. If the list is long enough, the encrypted name that occurs most often probably corresponds to Smith. The second most common encrypted name probably corresponds to Johnson, and so forth. This kind of inference is analogous to solving a cryptogram puzzle by counting letter frequencies.

The probability of correctly guessing the most common names based on frequency analysis depends critically in the sample size. In a small sample, there may be no Smiths. In a larger sample, the name Smith may be common, but not the most common.

I did some simulations to estimate how well frequency analysis would work at identifying the 10 most common names as a function of the sample size N. For each N, I simulated 100 data sets using probabilities derived from the surname frequencies derived from US Census Bureau data.

When N = 1,000, there was a 53% chance that the most common name in the population, Smith, would be the most common name in the sample. The second most common name in the population, Johnson, was the second most common name in the sample only 14% of the time.

When N = 10,000, there was a 94% chance of identifying Smith, and at least a 30% chance of identifying the five most common names.

When N = 1,000,000, the three most common names were identified every time in the simulation. And each of the 10 most common names were correctly identified most of the time. In fact, the 18 most common names were correctly identified most of the time.

A consequence of this analysis is that hashing names does not protect privacy if the sample size is large. Hashing names along with other information, so that the combined data has a more uniform distribution, may protect privacy.