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March 01, 2011

Diversity of Data Privacy Research on Display at CMU Forum

By Ken Walters

Posts and tweets may seem harmless by themselves, but together they could paint a negative picture when it comes to privacy.

CMU researchers believe the key to your online safety starts with your keyboard.

“There are two converging trends people need to consider. First, there is more and more self-disclosure online, where we are giving 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,” said Alessandro Acquisti, Heinz College associate professor of information technology and public policy. “It’s difficult for us as users to predict how those different pieces of data will be used by others.”

Data privacy is becoming increasingly complex, with issues ranging from technology and user behavior to economics, law and public policy. Carnegie Mellon is a hotbed for such research, with faculty studying various aspects of the subject. The university also is home to CyLab, one of the largest university-based cybersecurity research and education centers in the U.S.

A recent panel discussion as part of International Privacy Day in late January, discussed some of the research in front of a large crowd.

Moderated by Acquisti, the panel included experts from a variety of fields, including Assistant Professor Travis Breaux, whose research focuses on how information systems comply with government privacy policies; Associate Professor Lorrie Cranor, who has authored more than 80 research papers on data privacy issues; University Professor Steve Fienberg, who is an expert on protecting confidentiality in census data; Professor Norman Sadeh, co-founder of Wombat Security Technologies, which commercializes solutions to combat phishing attacks; and Associate Professor Jason Hong, who studies security issues related to mobile devices and applications.

“The interdisciplinary collaboration at CMU is why we are able to do such interesting work in the field,” Cranor said. “We’re looking at ways to help you protect your privacy and not regret what you’re doing.”

Data mining companies such as aggregate data and contact information about individuals and make it available on the Internet. It is one of many data warehouses that build extensive portraits of people based on gathered information.

“Don’t think it is a trivial matter,” Feinberg said. “The government is buying 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 that data is accurate.”

Acquisti notes that it will be important to increase public awareness of the nature of digital data and help people make more informed decisions about sharing personal data online.

“Students today may reveal something online that sometimes they don’t realize could still be available and used years later, say, when they run for office or apply for a job,” he said.

Concerns over unfortunate photos or embarrassing remarks living in cyberspace could lead to a cottage industry of “personal brand management,” Cranor noted.

She sees a business opportunity for cyber experts who could search the Web and delete unflattering information or photos, or at least make it more difficult for a “prospective employer or prospective date” to find, she said.

What: Dickson Prize Lecture    
When: 4:30 p.m., Monday, March 21
Where: Mellon Institute Auditorium