A Little Privacy, Please

Computer scientist Latanya Sweeney helps to save confidentiality with "anonymizing" programs, "deidentifiers" and other clever algorithms. Whether they are enough, however, is another question


Latanya Sweeney attracts a lot of attention. It could be because of her deep affection for esoteric and cunning mathematics. Or maybe it is the black leather outfit she wears while riding her Honda VTX 1300 motorcycle around the sedate campus of Carnegie Mellon University, where she directs the Laboratory for International Data Privacy. Whatever the case, Sweeney suspects the attention helps to explain her fascination with protecting people’s privacy. Because at the heart of her work lies a nagging question: Is it possible to maintain privacy, freedom and safety in today’s security-centric, databased world where identities sit ripe for the plucking?

Several years ago Scott McNealy, chair­man of Sun Microsystems, famous-ly quipped, “Privacy is dead. Get over it.” Sweeney couldn’t disagree more. “Privacy is definitely not dead,” she counters; those who believe it is “haven’t actually thought the problem through, or they aren’t willing to accept the solution.”

Certainly privacy is under siege, and that, she says, is bad. Debates rage over the Patriot Act and data mining at the federal level, and states have a hodgepodge of reactive laws that swing between ensuring privacy and increasing security. Although identity theft began a slow decline in 2002, one recent study revealed that 8.4 million U.S. adults still suffered some form of identity fraud in 2006. “The problem grows as technologies explode,” Sweeney says, and every problem requires a different solution, which is another way of saying that it is impossible to predict where new forms of privacy invasion will arise.

All this has kept Sweeney and her team busy the past six years wrestling some of today’s thorniest confidentiality issues to the mat—identity theft, medical privacy and the rapid expansion of camera surveillance among them. Other academic labs tend to attack issues at a theoretical level; the 47-year-old Sweeney states that her group operates as a kind of digital detective agency staffed with a dedicated squad of programmers devising some seriously clever software. The researchers’ approach is to technically fillet systems and then suggest ingenious but pragmatic solutions.

For example, Sweeney’s Identity Angel program scours the Internet and quickly gathers thousands of identities by linking names in one database with addresses, ages and Social Security numbers scattered throughout others. Those four pieces of information are all anyone needs to snatch an identity and open a credit-card account. The lab routinely alerts vulnerable people so they can fix the problem.

Another program “anonymizes” identities. It was originally developed for the Department of Defense after the 9/11 attacks to help locate potential terrorists while still protecting the privacy of innocent citizens. The program prevents surveillance cameras from revealing an identity until authorities show they need the images to prosecute a crime. Unlike other software, the program does not pixelate or black out an individual’s features but actually fabricates a new facial image from other faces in the database, making it impossible for humans or machines to identify.

The clever algorithms at the heart of Sweeney’s lab go back to her days growing up in Nashville, when she would daydream about ways to create an artificially intelligent black box that she could talk to. “I spent hours fantasizing about that box,” she recalls. Ten years later she parlayed her talent for mathematics and early fascination with artificial intelligence into scholarships that helped to pay her way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a bastion in both fields. It would have seemed the perfect place to pursue her grade school dream of creating a smart machine. The problem was that Sweeney had just departed the polite world of a prim New England all-girls high school and was suddenly immersed in M.I.T.’s male-dominated geek culture, a transition that took her off guard. That, coupled with her experiences with a racially insensitive professor whom she never seemed able to please, led Sweeney to drop out and start up her own software consulting business.

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