Source: The New York Times
John Podesta, a counselor to the president, said a goal of reviewing privacy and big data was to determine how the public and private sectors might maximize the flow of information necessary for innovation while minimizing potential privacy risks to individuals.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — With the success of its free open online course system, called MITx, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds itself sitting on a wealth of student data that researchers might use to compare the efficacy of virtual teaching methods, and perhaps advance the field of Web-based instruction.
Since its inception several years ago, for instance, MITx has attracted more than 760,000 unique registered users from about 190 countries, university officials said. Those users have generated 700 million interactions with the school’s learning system and have contributed around 423,000 forum entries, many of them quite personal.
As researchers contemplate mining the students’ details, however, the university is grappling with ethical issues raised by the collection and analysis of these huge data sets, known familiarly as Big Data, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T.
For instance, he said, serious privacy breaches could hypothetically occur if someone were to correlate the personal forum postings of online students with institutional records that the university had de-identified for research purposes.
“How do we set the boundaries, and balance the competing interests?” Dr. Reif asked in a public talk on Monday morning. “If you believe in the potential of digital learning, you have to care about the larger question: How can we harness this flood of data to generate positive change — without destroying the very idea of privacy? Parallel questions hover over our work in field after field.”
As the opening speaker at a workshop titled Big Data Privacy, sponsored by M.I.T. and the White House, Dr. Reif framed some of the big questions that have arisen from the increasing public and private sector use of powerful large-scale data-mining techniques.
While proponents view such big data analytics as promising tools for discovering useful insights in medicine, education, marketing and many other fields, consumer advocates warn that without explicit federal rules or policies overseeing their use, computer-generated algorithms could potentially be used to identify people who would prefer to remain anonymous, or to discriminate unfairly. They could be used, for example, to offer some consumers perks while others are charged higher prices or interest rates.
With that in mind, President Obama in January started a federal review intended to examine the impact of big-data technologies and whether they might pose new kinds of privacy intrusions into how people live and work. The workshop at M.I.T. is the first in a series of academic events, sponsored in part by the White House, intended to explore the technologies involved in big data and the privacy problems they may pose, along with potential policy and technological solutions.
One goal of the project, said John Podesta, the counselor to the president who is leading the Big Data Privacy review, is to determine how the public and private sectors might maximize the flow of information necessary for innovation while minimizing the potential privacy risks to individuals.
“What the president wants to explore, in part, is whether our existing privacy framework can accommodate these changes, or if there are new avenues for policy that we need to consider,” Mr. Podesta said in a speech for the M.I.T. event, delivered by phone because snow conditions in Washington prevented him from attending in person.
“Have we fully considered the myriad ways in which this data revolution might create social value,” he added, “and have we fully contemplated the risks that it might pose to our conceptions of individual privacy, personal freedom and government responsibility of data?”