The Common Datatrust Foundation recently attended and made a short presentation at the Workshop on Data Privacy, hosted by Rutgers University’s Center for Discrete Mathematics & Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS).
There were spirited conversations across disciplines as statisticians, mathematicians, computer scientists, and media experts discussed how to balance the public’s interest in both privacy and information sharing. The presentations ranged from tutorials on new security and privacy technology to the management of existing databases of personal information, such as the U.S. Census, as well as thought-provoking presentations on more abstract but highly relevant questions, such as what we mean when we say we want to protect “privacy.” As Professor Helen Nissenbaum from NYU Law School pointed out, certain kinds of information flow are appropriate for certain situations; there is no uniform way to understand privacy protection.
We were excited to see how our presentation provoked questions and conversations as well. Alex Selkirk introduced the concept of a “datatrust,” a secure, structured data storage system where each record in each dataset has a set of rules defining who may use it, what it may be used for, and with what level of anonymity it may be disclosed. The presentation focused primarily on one example of the current limits of data disclosure: the subprime mortgage crisis. Although there is a great deal of data held by banks and mortgage companies on subprime loans, investigators and researchers are unable to analyze the data because the data holders are bound by confidentiality agreements to individual borrowers. CDTF proposed that a datatrust, as a third party, could use new technology to anonymize and aggregate the data in a way that would allow researchers to query the loan data without forcing the disclosure of identifying details about the borrowers. Such data-sharing would further CDTF’s mission to both protect individual privacy and encourage the sharing of information for the public good.
We hope that the conversation we began at DIMACS will continue to engage conference participants and others in the coming months.