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Tip of the Hat

27 September 2020

Hat Tip: Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D.

Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Many of you might be preparing the last public displays for Black History Month or setting up the first set of Women’s History Month displays. If you need to add one more person to feature in either or both displays, or if you wish to know more important black women in STEM, you’re in luck! Today’s newsletter is a quick introduction to one of the major players in the data privacy field, Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D.

Latanya Sweeney is a Professor of Government and Technology in Residence at Harvard University and the founding director of Harvard's Data Privacy Lab. She is also the first African American woman to receive a Computer Science Ph.D. from MIT. Sweeney made many major contributions to the technology field, but the most well-known contribution for privacy professionals is Sweeney's work on k-anonymity. Her work on the re-identification of individuals through data has prompted a shift in many in the privacy field in reassessing the concept of anonymization. For example, in a study published in 2000, Sweeney found that 87% of the US population can be identified based on zip code, gender, and date of birth. Health data is also an area in which Sweeney has shown again and again how easy it can be to re-identify data that used certain anonymization methods.

Other parts of Professor Sweeney’s work delves into how data can be used to discriminate, including her work on the discrimination found in online ad delivery. The projects page for the Data Privacy Lab and the various tools on the home page shows the vast array of research areas under the guidance of Sweeney’s direction of the Lab.

Did we also mention that she was also the Chief Technologist at the FTC in 2014?

Some recent talks and panels include:
We leave you with an excerpt from a 2007 interview from Scientific American where many can appreciate Sweeney’s approach to privacy:

[Walter] Why is privacy versus security becoming such a problem? Why should we even care?

[Sweeney](Laughs) Well, one issue is we need privacy. I don't mean political issues. We literally can't live in a society without it. Even in nature animals have to have some kind of secrecy to operate…. There's a primal need for secrecy so we can achieve our goals.

Privacy also allows an individual the opportunity to grow and make mistakes and really develop in a way you can't do in the absence of privacy, where there's no forgiving and everyone knows what everyone else is doing… With today's technology, though, you basically get a record from birth to grave and there's no forgiveness. And so as a result we need technology that will preserve our privacy.
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