Sensitive attribute

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See also: Machine learning terms

Sensitive Attribute in Machine Learning

Sensitive attributes, also known as protected attributes, are variables that carry the potential of causing unfair or biased outcomes in a machine learning algorithm. These attributes often relate to demographic information such as race, gender, age, religion, or disability, and may inadvertently contribute to discriminatory decisions or predictions when used inappropriately in a model.


In the context of machine learning and data science, a sensitive attribute is a feature or variable within a dataset that has the potential to introduce unfairness or discrimination in the model's output. This can occur if a model relies heavily on these attributes to make predictions, leading to disparate impacts on different groups or individuals. As a result, it is crucial to identify and handle sensitive attributes with care during the design and implementation of machine learning algorithms.

Ethical Considerations

The use of sensitive attributes in machine learning raises ethical concerns due to the potential for perpetuating or exacerbating existing inequalities and biases. In order to promote fairness and equal treatment in algorithmic decision-making, researchers and practitioners must take measures to mitigate the impact of sensitive attributes on their models. Some common approaches include:

  • Data preprocessing: Techniques such as re-sampling, re-weighting, and feature transformation can be used to modify the dataset in a way that minimizes the influence of sensitive attributes.
  • In-processing: Algorithms can be designed with fairness constraints, which aim to equalize the impact of sensitive attributes on the model's predictions.
  • Post-processing: After a model has been trained, its predictions can be adjusted to account for potential biases related to sensitive attributes.

Legal Frameworks and Guidelines

Several legal frameworks and guidelines have been established to regulate the use of sensitive attributes in machine learning and other data-driven applications. Some notable examples include:

Explain Like I'm 5 (ELI5)

In simple terms, sensitive attributes are like labels that tell us about a person's characteristics, such as their race, gender, or age. When we use computers to make decisions or predictions, sometimes these labels can cause the computer to be unfair to certain groups of people. To make sure that everyone is treated fairly, it's important that we pay attention to these labels and make adjustments so that the computer doesn't treat people differently just because of these characteristics.