A Little Privacy, Please

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, chair man 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.

{Anyone interested in saving the privacy of health information knows of Latanya Sweeney and her groundbreaking research that shows how easy it is to re-identify personal health records. ~ Dr. Deborah Peel, Patient Privacy Rights}

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