Loss of privacy highlights cost, CMU professor says - Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Loss of privacy highlights cost, CMU professor says

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared privacy dead and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange trampled the corpse, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University believe privacy of personal information remains a key concern in the digital age.

"When you lose it, you realize the cost of it," said Alessandro Acquisti, a Carnegie Mellon professor of information systems and public policy who extensively researched data privacy.

Acquisti moderated a panel discussion among digital privacy researchers at the school's Oakland campus Wednesday as a prelude to the fourth International Data Privacy Day, an event the digital community in the United States, Canada and 27 other countries will mark Friday.

"There are two converging trends people need to consider. First, there is more and more self-disclosure online, where we give away little pieces of data, and the other side of that is the ability of data mining to scour those pieces to build a complete profile of your life," Acquisti said. "It's difficult for us as users to predict how those different pieces of data will be used by others."

Carnegie Mellon professor Steve Fienberg, who recently launched The Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality, learned how tough it can be to set things right when data miners create a flawed picture.

He was trying to purchase an international travel plan for his iPhone when an operator asked questions, including whether he had ever lived in several Ohio cities. When he answered no, the operator balked at continuing the transaction. Apparently, someone else's data had been linked with his profile, he said. He was forced to ask a supervisor to intervene.

Fienberg pointed to Spokeo.com as an example of a service that aggregates data and contact information about individuals and makes it available on the Internet. It is one of many data mining operations that build extensive portraits of people based on information gathered from various sources.

"Don't think this is a trivial matter," Fienberg warned. "The government is buying those data from data warehouses and using it in the war on terror. It really is a big issue with the government. They need to provide mechanisms to ensure data is accurate."

Acquisti said such issues raise questions, such as "What can we do about websites that share information about you that is incorrect?"

The answer, he and others say, might be to increase public awareness of the nature of digital data and help people fine-tune where and to whom they release information when using computers.

Researchers in Carnegie Mellon's Mobile Commerce Lab said that's what they attempted to do with Locaccino, a free smartphone application they developed two years ago.

The application enables users to preserve their privacy while allowing friends, family members or co-workers to track their locations. The application allows users to select whom they'll include in their groups and which members of the groups can access their locations at specific hours of the day.

Article courtesy of
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review